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Editorial: What if every week was a four-day workweek?

A person stretches next to a lake.
There’s a movement to encourage companies to try a four-day workweek to help avoid burnout and improve employee morale and well-being.
(Los Angeles Times)

It’s Labor Day and many workers are enjoying a rare long weekend. But what if this was the norm, and every week was a four-day workweek?

There’s a small but growing movement in the United States dedicated to making that happen by encouraging companies to try scaling back work hours while maintaining worker pay. The goal is to prove the theory that workers can be just as productive in four days as in five and that the change can benefit companies by improving employee morale and well-being.

It’s a much-needed experiment. Employees are quitting in record numbers. Those that don’t may be less productive. Half of workers report feeling burned out. Remote work was a boon for many employees by letting them avoid commuting and unproductive office hours, but the blurred lines of home and work also led many people to clock more hours on the job. Even before the pandemic, the demands of the traditional 40-hour-plus workweek could take a toll, particularly on parents, caregivers and others trying to balance life and work.

This is the moment to reimagine work. The pandemic has already radically shifted where many Americans work — at home, for roughly half of the U.S. workforce — and even when, given the flexibility of remote work. Why shouldn’t the question of how much also be on the table?

A coalition of business leaders and advocates thinks it should be and has launched a campaign to recruit companies to test out a four-day workweek and partner with academic researchers to measure the outcomes. The expectation (based on prior experiments) is that the reduced schedule will help attract and retain talent, decrease burnout, promote efficiency and creativity, and even reduce carbon emissions by cutting one day of commuting for those who cannot work at home.

So far, the four-day workweek has been mostly embraced by smaller firms, particularly in the information and technology sectors, that are more open to experimentation. Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter is planning to roll out a four-day workweek next year. There have been some examples of manufacturers and nursing homes that have trimmed work hours without cutting compensation. But it’s still largely a foreign concept in the U.S.

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Iceland tested the concept between 2015 and 2019, when about 1% of the nation’s workforce reduced their 40-hour workweek to 35 or 36 hours at the same pay. During the trial period, there was no apparent decrease in productivity or decline in services. That wasn’t specifically a study of a four-day workweek, as many of the workers just clocked less time on the job each day. But the results back up the idea that employees can work a little less without negative consequences. Now 86% of Iceland’s workforce, which is heavily unionized, has reduced hours or has the right to ask for reduced hours.

It’s unlikely that the U.S. would embrace such an ambitious change quickly, but Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) is trying to move the needle. He introduced legislation in July that would reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours under the Fair Labor Standards Act. It would apply to non-exempt workers who get paid an hourly wage rather than a salary, and they would have to be paid overtime if they worked more than 32 hours in a week.

Takano’s bill is an imperfect solution and likely to face stiff opposition in Congress. It would allow employers to cut workers’ take-home pay as well as their hours, which would hurt rather than help many people. Still, it’s worth starting the conversation in Washington about how to modernize labor laws, which haven’t changed much in the last century.

It wasn’t uncommon for employees to work six days a week before Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which set the standard workweek at 44 hours. The law was amended to 40 hours in 1940, and there it has stayed despite advances in technology and productivity. Even Richard Nixon predicted in 1956 that U.S. workers could enjoy a four-day workweek and a fuller family life.

The stress and upheaval of the last year and a half should force a long-overdue reckoning with American work culture. The pandemic radically infused much of the working world with enormous flexibility. Now many employees are loath to go back to the old ways. They don’t want to commute five days a week or be office-bound eight hours a day. They’ve gotten a taste of a real work-life balance and don’t want to lose it. Plus, the tight labor market and competition for workers have empowered employees to ask for more from their bosses.

So why not give it a try, and make every weekend a three-day weekend?


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