The 4-Day Work Week: Could It Work In the U.S.?

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4 day work week - Dr. Axe

The buzz surrounding Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s remarks on a shorter work week set off a firestorm of debate. And although Finland announced it isn’t currently implementing a 4-day work week, the media attention the idea received indicates people may be yearning for this type of change.

Company execs who have experimented with a shorter work week for employees suggest it results in optimal activity, in addition to being more sustainable and profitable. But can this type of schedule really work for American companies?

Traditionally, Americans take pride in “working harder than anyone else.” We push ourselves to accomplish more and reach higher goals — and endure the stress that comes with it. But is working harder, longer hours really linked to a boost in productivity or success?

Perhaps this American notion is to our own collective detriment. It’s contributing to what’s dubbed a “burnout crisis,” something that’s causing chronic stress and impacting our health and wellness. Indeed, life expectancy in the U.S. is on the decline.

What Is the 4-Day Work Week?

The 4-day work week is what the phrase implies — when employees work four instead of five business days. This can go a few ways. One example: an employee works the same amount of weekly hours, but crunches more hours into four days. (Think four 10-hour days verses five 8-hour days). Or, employees simply work fewer hours in a 4-day work week, but continue to make the same pay.

How does slashing hours, but keeping the same pay, work, exactly? Shortened work week advocates claim that despite working fewer hours, employees are more productive at the office.

On top of that, a global survey conducted by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated shows that 45 percent of full-time workers say it should take less than five hours a day to do their job if they worked uninterrupted. In addition to this, 71 percent of full-time workers surveyed expressed that work interferes with their personal lives.

The 4-day work week, in essence, allows for employees to finish their tasks within four days with uninterrupted, fully focused time on the job. Experiments around the world tend to show that with high expectations, fewer meetings and a collective understanding, the 4-day work week schedule may actually work.

The Science on Shorter Work Weeks

An article published by NPR indicates that when full-time workers at Microsoft Japan worked four days a week, the company reported a 40 percent boost in productivity.

Not only did the company experience an improvement in productivity, it also experienced a 23 percent decrease in electricity usage and saved paper.

Perpetual Guardian, a trust management company in New Zealand, shared similar results after implementing a shorter work week. The company reported a 20 percent lift in employee productivity, a 27 percent reduction in employee work stress levels, and a 45 percent boost in employee work-life balance.

A study involving neonatal intensive care nurses found that those working a 4-day, 40-hour alternative work schedule perceived the change as a major structural support. They reported that the 4-day work week enabled them to provide optimal patient care, while coping with work-related stress.

Countries Experimenting with Alternative Work Weeks

Organizations in several countries experimented with implementing a 4-day work week or reducing the average weekly hours.

  • France implemented 35-hour work weeks that took effect nearly 20 years ago.
  • The Netherlands’s average work week is 29 hours —the lowest of any modern nation.
  • Many organizations in the UK (and some in the U.S.) are debating the idea of a condensed work week.
  • Microsoft Japan ran a summer trial with a 4-day work week. This winter, the company plans to hold another work-life challenge that gives employees special paid time off.
  • Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand implemented a 4-day work week schedule.

4-Day Work Week Pros & Cons

Pro #1. Better for Mental & Physical Health

Overworking your body and mind can lead to both mental and physical health issues. Chronic stress from work may have a negative impact on hormone balance, immunity, brain health and more. It can also exacerbate medical conditions and increase the number of sick days that are taken my employees.

A shorter work week would allow for more time for exercise, rest and creative pursuits. These activities will help to relieve stress and improve health outcomes.

Pro #2. Possible Reduction in Healthcare Costs

This possible benefit of a four day work week relates to the positive effects fewer working hours has on mental and physical health. More time off may contribute to a better bill of health, which is due to more time for rest and recovery.

Research shows that there’s a direct link between chronic stress, which can occur as a result of a high-pressure, draining job, and increased risk for heart attack, heart disease and stroke.

Pro #3. More Sustainable and Environmentally Friendly

A shorter work week means less electricity consumed and less paper being used on off days. It also reduces congestion of the roads and public transportation systems, thereby possibly minimizing air pollution caused by commuters.

As we enter 2020, more companies are working to become more sustainable and contribute less to growing environmental concerns. Implementing a condensed work week may be one way to reduce a company’s carbon footprint.

Pro #4. May Improve Relationships & Family Life

A shorter work week allows employees to focus a little more on social balance and spending time with loved ones. This can, of course, improve relationships and family life.

We know that positive relationships can boost our happiness and health, perhaps even improving life expectancy, which is largely influenced by social factors.

Pro #5. Contributes to Gender Equality

A 2006 study published in Harvard Business Review suggests that when it comes to “extreme jobs,” or those that require employees to work 70+ hours per week, women aren’t able to match the hours logged by their male colleagues.

The study indicates that this is a barrier for ambitious women who will commit to hard work and responsibility, but cannot put in the long hours. This is most likely due to their dual role as caregivers and business women.

The idea is that a four hour work week would benefit women who would be better able to balance their at-home and at-work responsibilities with more flexibility.

Potential Cons of a 4-day Work Week

A 4-day week may seem too good to be true. How can employers expect to make the same salary while working less hours? For this to pan-out and benefit the company, employees need to make a commitment.

In exchange for a shorter work week, employees must commit to staying engaged and productive while they are on the job. According to Andrew Barnes, co-creater of 4 Day Week Global, employees must recognize that an extra day off is a gift that needs to be earned. This means that for many, behavioral changes are necessary. Less breaks from work to scroll through social media, for instance, and more focus on the tasks.

Once the novelty of a 4-day week wears off, do these behavioral changes continue? Or, eventually, does less time at work mean less productivity?

Although some companies that waded into 4-day work week reported a boost in productivity, there’s only a small pool of data at this point. Only a number of large, corporate companies have engaged in trial runs of the shorter work week, so we aren’t exactly sure how this would pan out in the long term.

Another possible drawback of a shorter work week is potential pay cuts. If employers aren’t willing to offer the same salary for a 4-day work week versus a 5-day work week, is it still worth it?

And lastly, it’s worth noting that some organizations experimenting with a shorter work week decided to stick to the traditional 5-day schedule because the change was too operationally complex to implement, according to research published in Harvard Business Review. When competitive companies are working five days, it may be harder for companies working fewer days to keep up.

How to Improve Your Work-Life Balance No Matter Where You Live

A few corporations are offering the 4-day work around the world, but it’s probably safe to say that most of us will continue working the traditional schedule for years to come. So how can you improve your work-life balance, even on a 5-day work week?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Unplug during off hours: We may love the idea of more time off and schedule flexibility, but we’re still tempted to check our work emails or texts after hours. To improve your work-life balance, it’s important to unplug and disconnect from your job and technology when the work day ends.
  2. Spend quality time with loved ones: Spend your time off focused on building positive relationships. This can benefit your health and even extend your lifespan.
  3. Take time off: Many jobs offer some personal time off, so take advantage. Tap into vacation health benefits, unwind and reboot.
  4. Set boundaries: Don’t take work home with you. When working hours are over, make it clear that this is your personal time that shouldn’t be interrupted.
  5. Create a healthy routine: Sticking to a routine that incorporates your personal hobbies, exercise and social outings is important. Make the time to set goals and schedule a pathway to get there into your calendar. Exercising in the early morning or during your lunch break can help to improve energy levels and overall health throughout the day. After work and on the weekends, pencil time for social events, or maybe just a dinner with your loved one. And don’t forget to engage in creative pursuits, whether it’s reading every night before bed, sketching in the morning or spending time outdoors before dinner.

Final Thoughts

  • The idea of a 4-day work week is getting plenty of attention lately. While more experiment with a shortened work week, many report that productivity has increased and company costs have decreased.
  • A shortened work week may improve your mental and physical health, strengthen your relationships and even contribute to a more sustainable future.
  • While we can all fantasize about a 3-day weekend, let’s focus on achieving work/life balance in the meantime. Unplug after work hours and spend your free time building relationships, engaging in healthy, fun activities and taking time to rest.