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Should We Move to the 4-Day Workweek?

August 12, 2021

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

As COVID changed our work patterns, there is a growing movement to see whether the 5-day a week work cycle is effective or not.  Longer hours and connectivity and burnout are becoming a staple of the workplace.  Further, there is a question of productivity in the long term when workers are so stretched.  Compressed workweeks are used by many organizations.

The issue of the 4-day workweek has long been discussed.  British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted we would have a 15-hour schedule “within a hundred years” back in the 1930s.  And in Europe, the 4-day workweek has gained increased traction, as complaints about work-life balance have grown.

Even before the pandemic, European workers felt burned out.  According to a 2018 study carried out by Wilmar Schaufeli for KU Leuven in Belgium and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, on average, 10% of the EU’s workforce said they felt “burnt out,” with about 17% of non-EU Europeans agreeing that overwork was leading to feelings of exhaustion. And in a 2019 ADP survey of the workforce of the EU’s eight largest economies, more than a quarter (28%) of employees said they thought their employers were not interested in their mental wellbeing, with 38% saying their employers’ interests in their mental health were only superficial.

In the U.S. a similar story arises.  An Indeed survey of 1,500 U.S. workers found over half (52%) of survey respondents are experiencing burnout in 2021—up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-Covid-19 survey. 53% of Millennials were already burned out pre-pandemic, and they remain the most affected population, with 59% experiencing it today. However, Gen-Z is now neck and neck, as 58% report burnout—up from 47% who said the same in 2020. Baby Boomers show a 7% increase in burnout from pre-pandemic levels (24%) to today (31%). And at 54%, more than half of Gen-Xers are currently burned out—a 14% jump from the 40% who felt this way last year.  Among all respondents, 80% believe COVID-19 has impacted workplace burnout—though, how and to what extent varies. A 67% majority say burnout has worsened during the pandemic, though 13% believe it has gotten better.

This survey, one of many, demonstrates the need that employers are seemingly slowly recognizing that mental health is an important component of employee attraction, retention, and productivity. Many new programs have gained traction over the past year.  The 4-day workweek is one of them.

Elephant Ventures, a software and data engineering company, headquartered in New York City, tried it out earlier in the year.  The plan was to try out 10-hour days Monday through Thursday for two months. Workers surveyed found that the compressed workweek worked well, though initially they got tired by the end of week. Based on that feedback, the company adopted the schedule permanently.  Other companies are going to 32-hour workweeks over four days and not reducing salaries (which now raises other issues).

Robert LaJeunesse, a work-time researcher who has researched and written on the economics of the 4-day workweek, states that “remote workers saved 55 minutes per day on average not commuting to work.  However, some surveys estimate that the workday has expanded by 48 minutes. Rising work-related stress suggests that work time is now more intensive, and extensive. Short hours experiments around the world have routinely documented increased job satisfaction, greater worker morale and productivity, and improved gender integration at work and home.”

“When men and women are not able to compete on the basis of long hours, men pull more weight in non-market production. Work time reduction in The Netherlands resulted in Dutch men and women performing nearly equal time in paid work and household production,” Dr. LaJeunesse continues. “Most important are the macroeconomic benefits of short hours. Sharing the work not only provides jobs and benefits for the unemployed, but it increases labor productivity, which keeps a lid on inflation.  Additionally, a shortened workweek shifts production from the market to the household sphere – remember all the homespun activities rediscovered during the pandemic lock-down? Less market spending and throughput reduces inflation and environmental damage. Work time reduction presents the opportunity to take the best aspects of the pandemic experience and retain it on a smaller scale to make our society and economy more resilient.”

Not all employers can move to a 4‐day workweek given the type of work they perform. But it is important to decouple individual working hours from “operating hours,” as often the solution is as simple as adding more shifts. Manufacturing operations could be a good proponent for this schedule. Although the employee‐benefit costs of adding more workers may be higher in the short-run, reducing hours might reduce turnover and increase productivity in the long‐run. Sometimes thinking outside the box can provide the innovation necessary to win the war for talent.

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