- Researchers say 4-day workweeks can improve employee health and well-being as well as reduce sick days.
- They add the shorter workweek can even boost productivity and companies’ profitably.
- Experts note that 4-day workweeks are becoming more common, but careful planning is needed to make sure goals are met.
Pay workers the same amount for fewer days of work and they’ll be just as productive as when they work longer hours.
They’ll also use fewer sick days, be less stressed, and have better overall well-being.
That’s the message to employers from experts at the 4 Day Week Campaign.
The researchers there based their findings on a 6-month project involving 61 employers in the United Kingdom who reduced work hours by 20%.
The researchers concluded that companies that allow employees to work four days a week rather than five reduced workers’ self-reported stress levels by 39% and burnout by 71%.
In addition, sick days were cut by 65% and turnover was reduced by 57%, according to research on the project conducted at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and Boston University in the United States.
“Before the trial, many questioned whether we would see an increase in productivity to offset the reduction in working time – but this is exactly what we found,” said Brendan Burchell, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge and a study co-author.
“Many employees were very keen to find efficiency gains themselves. Long meetings with too many people were cut short or ditched completely,” he said. “Workers were much less inclined to kill time and actively sought out technologies that improved their productivity.”
At the same time, employer revenues actually increased slightly during the study period, by an average of more than 1%. By the end of the pilot program, 92% of officials at the companies that participated said they plan to continue the switch from a five-day work week to four, with 18 companies of the 62 companies making the change permanently.
Michael D. Levitt, the founder and “chief burnout officer’ of The Breakfast Leadership Network, a workplace culture consulting firm, told Healthline that an experiment conducted by Microsoft Japan in 2019 found that shifting from a 5-day to a 4-day workweek led to a 40% increase in productivity.
“This was attributed to various factors, such as shorter meetings, more efficient use of technology, and a reduction in time spent commuting,” said Levitt. “While there may be some challenges associated with implementing this change, such as the need to reorganize work schedules and ensure that customer needs are still being met, the potential benefits make it a compelling option for companies looking to improve their workplace culture and support the well-being of their employees.”
Under the model used in the new study, the standard 40-hour work week was reduced to 32 hours with no reduction in pay.
Some companies simply extended weekends to three days per week, while others reduced hours over the course of the week or longer, One restaurant, for example, cut hours in the winter when business was slower while still being able to have staff available in the busier summer months.
“Some firms may choose to require that employees work four days for 10 hours each day,” Robert C. Bird, MBA, JD, a professor of business law at the University of Connecticut’s School of Business, told Healthline. “The primary advantage to this system for employees is that there is a clear rationale to retain their full compensation for working the same hours. Furthermore, although employees will likely be more fatigued at the end of their 10-hour workdays, employees will benefit from an extra full day free from work so they can schedule medical appointments, children events, or work as caregivers for older family members.”
“However, if employees prefer a four-day workweek that lasts eight hours a day, that would result in 32 weeks of work per week,” said Bird. “Employers could reasonably conclude that since employees are working fewer hours per week, their compensation should be lowered proportionally. This may be of significant concern to employees who are barely making ends meet with 40 hours of work.”
A few companies in the trial set conditions on employees, such as fewer days off for holidays, an agreement that workers could be called in at short notice or tying the four-day week to performance targets.
Charlotte Lockhart, who co-founded 4 Day Week Global with fellow entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Barnes, told Healthline that she expects the 4-day workweek to become the standard in the United Kingdom within 5 years and in the United States within a decade.
“We’re looking at the difference between busyness and productivity,” she said. “Companies do find that they can increase productivity without intensification.”
“Almost [every manager] we interviewed described being overwhelmed with questions from other organizations in their industry that are interested in following suit,” said Burchell. “When we ask employers, a lot of them are convinced the four-day week is going to happen… A four-day week means a better working life and family life for so many people.”
Employees interviewed for the study cited an improvement in work-life balance as among the biggest benefits of the four-day work week: 60 percent said it was easier to combine work with care responsibilities, for example, and 62 percent said combining work and social life was improved.
“If you give workers a good income and more time off, you have a happier workplace as well,” said Lockhart.
“You’re also creating a healthier workforce,” she added, pointing to the finding that people who worked four days rather than five got an average of seven more hours of sleep per week.
“We already know that sleep impacts on everything in our lives — how long we live, how sick we are, how safe we are at work,” she noted.
Attracting and retaining skilled workers also is a major reason for employers to consider a four-day work week, said Lockhart, especially in the wake of the shift to more at-home work and greater schedule flexibility initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
“After years of cutbacks or ‘right-sizing’ — where employers foisted the work of two or three people onto individuals — we’re trending in the other direction. Organizations that want to find and keep devoted employees recognize they must reimagine work in ways that don’t negatively impact quality of life for those they hire,” Joe Mull, a business consultant and host of the Boss Better Now podcast and founder of the Boss Better Leadership Academy, told Healthline.
Mull, who researched 4-day workweek programs for his upcoming book, Employalty: How to Ignite Commitment and Keep Top Talent in the New Age of Work, added, “What’s important to understand about making 4-day work weeks work is that employees in most trials did not experience a cutback or reduction in their compensation. Here again, this speaks to employers’ commitment to better quality of life. At a time when it’s harder than ever before to attract and retain talent, companies must create the best job for the person. Four-day work weeks are an attractive option for both employers, who understand they must innovate, and employees who want work to work better for them.”
Shirley Borg, head of human resources at the online gaming site Energy Casino, told Healthline that careful implementation is the key to making a 4-day workweek successful.
“We initially experimented with this model in 2021, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out as well as we had hoped,” she said. “Our employee satisfaction survey scores on work-life balance decreased by 10 percent compared to the previous year and we saw a 20 percent increase in sick leave usage among employees who were on the 4-day workweek schedule.”
“We also noticed a 5 percent decrease in productivity during the trial period,” she added. “We believe some of the issues stemmed from the fact that our business works 24/7, so such a major change was too much of a strain on our operations. We didn’t properly plan how the workload that was previously split would now be forced on them to complete in a shorter time frame while attempting to implement that system.”
“However, we’ve been hearing more positive news about the benefits of a 4-day work week, especially with regards to better worker retention and reduced sick days,” Borg noted. “We believe that with better planning and implementation this time around, we can achieve these benefits for our employees. We’re planning to carefully assess our company’s needs and work with experts in the fields of economics, employment, and human resources to develop a comprehensive plan for implementing a 4-day work week in 2023.”
Lockhart said that the four-day workweek will become the norm once employers are open to the idea, which she said is already backed by ample evidence.