Opinion: Can a four-day workweek really work? Many companies have already learned the answer
In 1940, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to limit the standard workweek to 40 hours, with any additional hours eligible for overtime. Despite a more than threefold increase in productivity since, the 40-hour week has remained unchanged for 83 years.
But it may be changing at last. 2023 could just be the year of the four-day, 32-hour week.
Over the first few months of the year, Google searches for information about the four-day week rose by a factor of five. The media have produced hundreds of stories on companies that are offering 32-hour schedules. California and other states have considered legislation to enact or study a four-day week, and Riverside Rep. Mark Takano has introduced a bill on the subject in Congress.
In Europe, national and regional governments have pilot four-day week programs in progress, and the United Arab Emirates has shifted public-sector employees to a 4 ½-day schedule. In February, we released findings from the world’s largest trial of a four-day week with no reduction in pay, involving some 60 organizations in Britain across a range of sectors from public relations to healthcare to manufacturing. The results were striking: Employees and companies using the new schedule are thriving.
Why are reduced working hours suddenly on the agenda after years of not being taken seriously? The most important reason is the pandemic.
Leaders of the first organization to be part of our research attributed their decision to the COVID-driven shift to remote work. Dr. Adam Husney, the chief executive of the health information firm Healthwise, explained: “Once we realized we could trust our employees with where they work, we also realized we could trust them about how much time they work.”
Before the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about paying people for their output rather than their hours, but organizations honored the principle mostly in the breach. Once people are off-site, however, paying for productivity rather than time makes more sense, as least for employees who aren’t subject to draconian surveillance measures.
The pandemic also turbo-charged the four-day week by creating much more hardship for workers. While the work-life interface was difficult to navigate before COVID, the contagion itself and the complications of merging work and family life led to record levels of stress. The latest published research from Future Forum, based on a 2022 survey, found that 42% of employees polled in the United States and five other countries said they were burned out, a 4-percentage-point increase compared with just a year earlier.
Workers are responding with their feet. For Healthwise’s Husney, a staff exodus in June 2021 was the impetus for closing on Fridays. The labor market is experiencing not only the so-called Great Resignation — record numbers of people quitting their jobs — but also extremely high numbers of unfilled positions. Organizations are having difficulty retaining workers and scrambling to fill openings.
Raising pay isn’t always enough, and not all organizations can afford to do so. Turnover is also extremely expensive. It’s one reason much of the interest in the four-day workweek is coming from healthcare organizations, where burnout and resignations among nurses have become endemic.
We also think a quieter evolution away from the five-day schedule is underway. Many organizations have already reduced summer schedules by shortening or eliminating Friday hours. No-meeting Fridays have enabled more remote workers to take some of the day for themselves under the radar. We discovered that Friday morning classes at an exercise studio in our area have become very popular, thanks partly to people who reported being “at work.”
Our research suggests that the four-day, 32-hour week is not only feasible; it’s better for workers and employers.
In collaboration with the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, we’ve been tracking what happens when companies switch to the curtailed schedule with no reduction in pay after a two-month process of figuring out how to maintain productivity and performance. We’ve found that employee well-being is markedly improved. Of more than 100 companies with thousands of workers around the world, nearly 70% experienced reduced rates of burnout.
Stress fell. Reported physical and mental health improved. People felt less anxious and fatigued, exercised more and slept better. Their life satisfaction rose, and conflicts among work, family and life plummeted.
But it’s not just workers who benefited. On a 10-point scale, companies rated the success of the trials at a robust 8.5 or higher. Perhaps the most persuasive metric is that most are opting to continue with the shorter schedule. Only a handful of the organizations that have participated in the trials have reverted to the five-day week.
Many will continue to oppose a shortened work schedule because it sounds un-American or unprofitable. But we’re finding out that modern challenges make the four-day workweek not only possible but better for workers, employers and society.
Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology and Wen Fan is an associate professor of sociology at Boston College.
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