A long weekend would be a dream for many, but for some, it’s the reality. More organisations are experimenting with a four day work week. It’s said to boost morale, productivity and offer employees a better work/life balance. But questions linger over its economic viability and suitability for all industries. Should it become the new 9-5?

According to trade union the TUC, UK workers don’t just work the standard 40 hour work week - they also put in an extra 2.1 billion unpaid hours.

Other studies have found that 12.5 million work days were lost due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression and in 44% of cases, this was linked to workload. We’re working more and we’re getting ill because of it. Clearly something has to change.

Some believe that the answer is shifting to a four day work week. The Autonomy Institute says that: “We want to shift people’s perspectives, to better work and less work.”

Perhaps less is actually more? Let's consider the benefits of a shorter working week...

Quality, not quantity

The idea of better work always comes up when discussing the four day work week. Nearly 8 hours a week is wasted on errands, social media and checking personal emails. Remove these from the work day and you’ve already achieved a four day work week. But, of course, moving towards a shorter work week doesn’t necessarily stop employees checking their phones.

Yet, technology is making the case for a four hour work week even stronger. The lines have blurred between home and work, meaning that the actual number of hours worked by many people could be much higher. It also means that work hours have little to do with people physically being present in an office.

Changing work culture

The way that people view work is also changing. The mindset is shifting from the traditional 9-5 with more individuals embracing different work styles including freelancing, flexible and remote working, and digital nomadism.

A Deloitte study found that younger workers (especially Millennials) are placing more emphasis on their work/life balance compared to older colleagues. They even prioritise it over career progression. The traditional career motivations of a steady job and a regular promotion aren’t so powerful anymore.

Organisations are realising this, which explains why they are experimenting with concepts like shorter working hours.

How employees benefit

Apart from the obvious cut in working hours, employees experience a host of other benefits. These include:

Improved health: Reduce working hours and work-related stress is likely to decrease too. People will also have more time to spend on wellness activities like going to the gym, meditation and yoga.

Affordable childcare: With a shorter work week, parents will be better able to balance their time and reduce the costs of full-time childcare. Plus, families will have more time to spend together.

Easier transition: Shifting from long work hours to suddenly doing nothing can be traumatic. Working a four day week can help employees make a smoother transition to retirement.

Sweden ran a well-publicised trial of a shorter work week, with employees offered a chance to work fewer hours on full pay. The trial, that ran from 2015 to 2017, showed marked improvement in sick leave. The care home nurses who took part reported feeling healthier and more productive. They organised 85% more activities for their patients, including sing-a-longs and nature walks. However, it wasn’t without its critics - the scheme was not considered economically viable enough to roll out nationwide.

Shorter working hours help businesses

A four day work week can also benefit businesses and society as a whole. Countries with shorter working hours have a smaller carbon footprint. They have a more robust economy too.

Germany has the shortest work hours in all OECD countries, but its economy is stronger than the UK’s. German workers are also 27% more productive than UK employees.

Productivity gains might come as a surprise. After all, with less work hours, you’d expect less work to be done. However, this is offset by the fall in sick days and healthier workforce.

Then there’s the idea that less time to do work, means more focus on essential tasks and less procrastinating. Basecamp CEO Jason Fried switches his employees to a 32 hour work week during summer (and 40 hours in winter) to reduce burnout. He recently told CNBC that, “...you can get plenty of stuff done in 32 and 40 hours if you cut out all the stuff that's taking up your time.”

A fairer allocation of hours

Moving to a shorter work week requires a redistribution of hours. Organisations will have to employ more people to cover the same amount of market demand. However, a four day work week will make employment more accessible to people who otherwise may not be able to work, for example single parents.

But there’s a catch. If working fewer hours equals a decrease in pay, then people could see a huge loss of income. That might have to be offset by increases in the minimum wage, or a scheme like Universal Basic Income.

Who won’t it work for?

A shorter work week won’t be suitable for everyone. There’s the poorest workers who cannot afford a pay cut and elite workers who might not want to work less. Entrepreneurs building their companies may also favour a longer work week.

Generally speaking, those set to benefit most from shorter working hours are the people who cannot take their work home with them. Many office workers have email and other work functions on their phones. They never switch off. So a shorter work week might cause them to take more work home. There’s a risk that it becomes a bit like skipping homework. Work less and tasks will soon build up.

Part of a wider solution

Shorter work weeks aren’t going to be the magic bullet for everyone. Instead, they are a part-solution. It all ties into creating a better work environment and giving people a choice about how they work. Ultimately, that could be a four day work week, remote working, the gig economy or digital nomadism.

The way we work is changing. It’s becoming more tailored to the individual and organisations need to reflect this. Give people the power to choose how and when they work. Let them scale down or up as their life-stages change. It’s all about working better - and letting employees choose what that looks like.

Photo by Roman Bozhko on Unsplash (with a slight tweak by our design department).

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