Blog Workplace Culture

What are the benefits and drawbacks of a 4-day week?

The 5-day work week has been one of the defining elements of full-time employment for a long time now. And that's putting aside sectors where weekend shifts are common, like the service industry. But, with job stress and burnout continuing to rise, there has to be a better way. So, could a 4-day work week be the solution, or is it just a flight of fancy?

Why it's worth talking about

Stress, overwork and burnout have become all too common in recent years. In fact, Gallup's most recent State of the Global Workplace report found job stress is once again at an all-time high. 44% of people reported experiencing high daily stress, with working women in the US and Canada being the worst affected.

Workplace cultures have, for too long, rewarded presenteeism (staying late in the office to appear more hardworking). Too many companies choose to keep the status quo rather than explore more flexible options.

So it's about time we had the conversation about shorter work weeks. Of course, it's hardly a new idea. But its controversial nature has made it hard for the 4-day work week to find widespread legitimacy.

It was brought back onto the agenda with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in response to the fallout of COVID-19. She suggested businesses adopt a 4-day work week as one of the pathways out of the economic crisis.

The thinking was that, with international travel off the menu for a while, an extra leisure day each week would mean native New Zealanders get out more and contribute to the tourist economy themselves. Of course, that's no longer a necessity. But, with occupational stress continuing to mount post-Pandemic, we can't help thinking the idea still has merit.

Iceland’s 4-day week trial has been a huge success

The fallout of the pandemic has had the silver lining of dragging employee wellbeing into the spotlight. But it’s always been a vital topic. That’s why, from 2015 to 2019, 2,500 people (equating to over 1% of Iceland’s working population) took part in a trial of the four-day work week. Those who took part had their working hours cut back to 35-36 hours a week with no change in pay.

The result was an ‘overwhelming success,’ as the study produced significant gains in both productivity and employee wellbeing due to decreases in stress and improving work/life balance, and analysts in Iceland and the UK believe these findings should be tested in other areas of the world.

Most impressively of all, the Icelandic Trade Union Federations estimate that, as a result of this study, approximately 86% of Iceland’s working population now have either flexibility or outright reduced hours in their contracts. In other words, every day, more and more people are deciding it’s time for a 4-day week to become the norm!

And Japan may soon be following the 4-day work week suit

Historically, Japan has had its share of problems with work culture. In the 1970’s, they even established a term for death from overwork, ‘Karoshi.’ But that may be about to change, as the Japanese government has been working hard to bring their country’s approach to work into the 21st Century.

Their aim is to promote a healthier work/life balance, and encourage employers to offer more options for flexibility, with remote work being one example. But what’s most interesting is that they’re considering the possibility that it’s time for a 4-day week for their working population.

Supporting the right of employees to take time off and not be overworked is essential for preventing burnout and improving wellbeing. But it’s also hoped that a 4-day work week could benefit the Japanese economy and society at large by giving people more time to outside of work to enjoy themselves and patronise businesses.

The extra time for leisure and social interaction could also help to alleviate another major issue the Japanese government must contend with: Low marriage and birth rates in the face of a quickly ageing population.

But the best part is, Japan isn’t the only country considering these measures to support employee wellbeing. Spain, Germany and New Zealand are also preparing similar trials. So, will we see a 4-day week in the UK? Only time will tell.

4-day weeks versus compressed hours

Even pre-Pandemic, the 4-day work week had been gaining momentum in the last few years anyway. It doesn't mean compressing the same number of hours into a shorter week. Compressed hours are one way some businesses try to compromise. But it can be a half-measure that risks compounding employee stress, rather than alleviating it.

A true 4-day week means cutting a day out of the work week, but paying employees the same as before. So, if you were to break an employee's salary down into an hourly rate, you'd actually be giving them a proportional pay increase.

Sound a bit too radical? Well, it's been trialled by companies that report a whole host of benefits. For example, an increase in the all-important bottom line. From healthier employees to better quality work, there's evidence that less time at work can make businesses more competitive in all sorts of ways.

Let's have a look at the arguments for and against a four-day work week. 

Arguments for the 4-day work week

Working more doesn't always lead to more productivity. 

And being at the office doesn't mean you're always working. In fact, here in the UK, we have the longest working week in Europe. But we're far from the most productive. In fact, we're not even in the top ten. Somewhat counter-intuitively, working less might be the solution. 

4-day weeks encourage a leaner schedule

Having less time to work means you focus more on doing the important stuff. It means less tolerance of wasting time in endless meetings. You're not as tempted to fritter away your day reading the news or scrolling social feeds. Knowing your weekend is closer causes you to focus and prioritise what matters most.

After trying it for a few weeks, you'll soon realise a lot of what you do doesn't contribute meaningfully to your business goals. And the 5-day 9-5 week is an outdated relic of a bygone era.

Shorter work weeks are better for wellbeing

On a personal level, the effects of burnout on health can't be ignored. There's a familiar cycle you can get into. You can't really do anything on Saturday because you're exhausted from the week. Then Sunday is spent cramming in all the errands you couldn't do in the week.

With an extra day each weekend, you'll discover the beauty of a true leisure day. One where you're fully rested, with plenty of energy to get out there and enjoy yourself. In a time where we need to do everything we can for workplace wellbeing, 4-day work weeks are an easy win.

With more leisure time, people will have more opportunity to contribute to their local economies. And, with the cost of living increasing, that's something local restaurants and cultural destinations will really need in the coming years. Financial wellbeing is vital too, after all.

Parents also get to spend more time with their children. Software company Buffer found that a 4-day work week was the number 1 wish for parents in 2020. This led Buffer to implement the shorter week for the month of May. Then, after a further six month trial, this led to Buffer implementing 4-day work weeks "for the foreseeable future."

There are also some great arguments from a societal perspective. Fewer working hours means fewer journeys taken by car and public transport. And that means fewer emissions and pollution going into our air. Optimising road networks to reduce congestion can lead to millions of pounds of productivity growth, too.

Arguments against the 4-day work week

There are a few concerns for the shortened work week. Although it's a pretty great idea, there are some organisations that'll have to think harder about how to make it work. And these staffed mainly by frontline workers.

Compressing hours into a 4-day work week may be exhausting

If you allow staff to work 4-day weeks, but demand that they make up the time elsewhere, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The fact is, even an eight-hour day makes people work past the point of diminishing returns, meaning those extra hours will likely cost more than they earn. That’s arguably not worth the increased risk of burnout.

Any workplace that needs people to be present in a certain place. Like air traffic controllers, tourist destinations, hospitals, and so on. These sectors will have to think about scheduling. They probably won't feel as much benefit as their output may be broadly the same however much time they spend at work. And there's health and safety implications too.

So this sort of thing might only work for those in the "information economy" or other types of output-based companies. If you're not sure how to implement it fairly, check in with your people and try to understand their specific needs.

You’re paying a 5 day rate for 4-day's work

So, if you follow in the Icelandic government’s footsteps, you’ll be paying employees the same salaries for less hours, which can feel like a kick in the teeth when you’re trying to run the most cost-effective business possible. But, as Iceland’s findings show us, it’s not even really an issue.

Think about a construction site. If you took away 20% of working hours (on full pay), workers would be happier and more rested. But would they get more done in the compressed time? The way projects are managed on a building site, with so many complex moving parts, would certainly make it difficult. 

Slight staff increases may be necessary

Cutting back hours can create gaps in your shift schedule. So, in a situation where you’re reducing everyone’s hours, you might need to take on new hires.

Scheduling and keeping everything fair will be a challenge for some organisations. And experiments in the past have shown it doesn't always work. Take the Wellcome Trust for example.  This research foundation couldn't find a way to fairly transition its 800+ office staff to four-day weeks, calling it "too operationally complex to implement". 

Learn how a weekly employee check-in is the foundation of moving to more flexible working practices. Download our latest guide: Embracing continuous performance management 👇