Two men look at a laptop in an office.Share on Pinterest
10’000 Hours/Getty Images
  • Several countries are trying out shorter workweeks in hopes of improving employee well-being while maintaining productivity.
  • Belgium now allows employees to work 10 hours per day to get a 3-day weekend.
  • Experts say a shorter workweek may help employees avoid burnout.

Lawmakers in Belgium recently introduced a measure that would allow employees to work longer days to get a 3-day weekend.

Proponents say this change will provide workers with greater flexibility, allowing them to find more work-life balance and better manage their child care or elder care arrangements.

However, unlike other countries that have trialed shorter workweeks, employees in Belgium will still be required to work 38 hours a week.

So that 4-day workweek would mean working up to 10 hours a day. Not everyone will find this appealing, even if there’s a 3-day weekend at the end of the work tunnel.

“Working those 2 extra hours during the day is really tough,” said Jonathan Malesic, PhD, author of “The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives.” “Your productivity after the 8th hour on the job probably diminishes, but the stress doesn’t.”

Besides, “there’s no magic to working 4 days a week instead of 5,” he added. “I think it’s the number of hours that play a bigger role.”

Other countries have taken a different approach toward improving employee well-being.

Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland trialed a shorter workweek, without specifying how many days people would be working.

That pilot study involved more than 2,500 workers, many of whom moved from a 40-hour week to a 35- or 36-hour week while receiving the same pay.

Researchers found that the well-being of workers increased, with employees reporting less stress and burnout and improved health and work-life balance.

In addition, productivity remained the same or increased in most workplaces involved in the trial.

As of last June, 86 percent of Iceland’s workforce had moved to working shorter hours for the same pay, or had gained the right to do so in the future.

Since Iceland’s study, interest in shorter workweeks has grown, with the pandemic pushing more people to reassess what is most important in their careers and personal lives.

Japan, Spain, and Scotland, as well as several companies in the United States, are also trialing shorter workweeks.

Last year, Rep. Mark Takano of California introduced legislation that would reduce the standard workweek in the country from 40 hours to 32 hours. Any work beyond that would be considered overtime.

Nellie Brown, director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said these kinds of working arrangements offer many benefits for employees.

“The shorter workweek is highly desirable, particularly if the hours match what people’s needs really are,” she said.

“For example, if the hours are more predictable, it’s easier for people to manage their work and personal balance,” Brown said. “That way, they can make arrangements for child care, elder care, and for doing things that are enjoyable.”

Malesic said shorter workweeks can also help reduce employee burnout.

“If we have really high expectations for our job, and if the conditions don’t live up to those expectations, then we’re likely to burn out,” he said.

“Shortening the workweek is one way to improve those conditions — to allow workers to have more of the abstract goods that come from working, without the same level of stress and indignities that come with a job,” he added.

These abstract goods include social, psychological, and spiritual benefits — benefits that can occur while on the job or during the time spent away from work.

In addition, “having more time off enables people to live more,” said Brown. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to consume more, but this extra free time can add a sort of richness and depth to their life.”

While some people may spend those extra nonworking hours in nature or trying a new hobby, this may not always be the case. Others may get a second job to make ends meet, or take on more of the child care or elder care in their family.

James R. Bailey, PhD, a professor of leadership development at the George Washington University School of Business, said there are very few high quality studies looking at the impact of shorter workweeks on employee well-being and productivity.

“[A shorter workweek] sounds humane, it sounds progressive,” he said. “And it seems like the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do.”

Some of the strongest data comes from Iceland.

Researchers found that in some workplaces, employees reported feeling “more positive and happier at work.”

Many workers also said that when they started working fewer hours each week, “they felt better, more energised, and less stressed, resulting in them having more energy for other activities, such as exercise, friends and hobbies.”

Some people even showed less interest in working a part-time job and were less likely to turn down employer requests for them to work overtime.

“This indicates more satisfaction with the hours worked generally,” the researchers wrote.

As more countries trial these kinds of programs, researchers will have a better chance to understand the benefits and downsides of shorter workweeks.

Several Scottish businesses recently joined a pilot program in the country that will reduce the workweek to 4 days, with no decrease in pay.

Researchers will work with Scottish businesses to measure the impact of a shorter workweek on employees’ well-being and productivity.

Although interest in shorter workweeks is growing, Bailey said there are many logistical challenges for employers to sort out, especially if employees or businesses don’t have the same days off.

“If you have two workers who need to coordinate all day long, yet one of them is not in on Thursdays, they can’t have the same degree of interaction and information exchange as before,” said Bailey.

Now imagine a company with 600 or even 500,000 employees, he said. Coordinating days off for that many people, while still allowing for necessary interactions to occur, becomes very complex.

Similar problems can occur for businesses that interact with other businesses. What happens if one takes every Monday off and another every Friday?

“This is one of these simple solutions that sounds good,” said Bailey, “but it creates problems.”

Another potential problem of shorter workweeks is the challenge of keeping a clear line between work and home life, something many people who worked from home during the pandemic experienced.

“Employees and employers have to set boundaries,” said Brown. “For example, what are the hours of work and what will be the expectations for responding to emails or messages outside of that time?”

“It’s not always easy to do this,” she added.

Interest in shorter workweeks is also driven in part by increased demand for employees in certain industries.

Malesic said before the pandemic, many businesses attracted employees with promises of “doing what you love” or “being part of a ‘really fun’ workplace.”

But with everything that has happened during the pandemic, these “benefits” may no longer interest potential employees.

“In the U.S., we’ve seen nearly a million people die of COVID-19 over the last 2 years,” said Malesic. “Workers may be recognizing that they don’t want to spend a large part of their limited lives working for often questionable purposes.”

“So if companies want to attract and retain workers, they have to improve working conditions,” he said.

And that may mean tipping the work-life balance a little more toward living.