The pandemic transformed the way many of us think about work. Suddenly, the concept of remote work skyrocketed in popularity: Working from home was not only more convenient, but also safer when it came to evading the spread of COVID-19. Even now, three years after the virus first entered our lives, 30 percent of work in the US remains remote. Workers prefer it this way, as many have found it increases their productivity and time spent with family, while doing away with time-consuming commutes and office distractions. (Of course, many Americans were required to return to the office over the last year or two, and plenty never left; those who cannot conduct their job “from home” may include retail workers, hospitality and personal care workers like food service employees or hairstylists, transportation workers like taxi drivers or subway operators, and farmers.)
At this point, a large sector of corporate America has agreed upon a “hybrid” work model, often consisting of three days in the office and two at home. But another question keeps cropping up in conversations surrounding labor: Why is a five-day work week still the standard? A huge UK trial recently discovered that a four-day workweek may truly be better, for both employees and employers.
Last year, 61 British companies offered their employees a four-day workweek as part of a pilot program. The resulting study was conducted by 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit group; researchers at Cambridge University and Boston College; and Autonomy, a think tank. A quick synopsis of the findings? Both employees and employers noticed benefits. In fact, 56 of participating businesses (92 percent) said they would continue with the four-day work week model following the trial’s conclusion. 18 of the businesses even confirmed that the change would be permanent.
If you think a shorter work week must mean a decrease in profits or productivity, think again. The study found that companies’ revenue stayed roughly the same throughout the trial period, despite the move from five to four work days. In a survey conducted halfway through the trial, most of the companies also reported no loss of productivity due to the four-day model.
A total of 3,300 workers participated in this pilot program, hailing from industries such as banks, marketing, health care, financial services, retail, and hospitality. The overall response was extremely positive: 90 percent of participating employees wanted to continue with a four-day week; no participants said they did not want to continue; and 15 percent said no amount of money could convince them to accept a five-day schedule at their next job.
Additionally, the salubrious effect that the four-day work week had on the employees’ well-being was pronounced. The study found that their levels of anxiety, fatigue and sleep issues decreased, while their mental and physical health improved. 70 percent of employees said they had reduced levels of “burnout” — a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress — by the end of the trial.
“Taken as a whole, results from the UK trial therefore make clear that the four-day week is ready to take the next step from experimentation to implementation,” the report concluded.
The Future of the Four-Day Work Week
This British study isn’t the first to consider whether a four-day work week is justifiable. Similar experiments have been conducted in countries like the US, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia. But clearly, there’s a reason the five-day work week has persisted for so long. Some bosses claim to believe that coming into the office improves culture (because of enhanced social opportunities) and productivity — while those who disagree believe that their desire for in-office employees is more about control. Additionally, many managers and investors aren’t willing to pay their workers full-time salaries for four days of work. In speaking to the New York Times, Nick Bloom, a Stanford professor of economics, points out that the businesses involved in this UK study volunteered to participate — so, it’s likely they were already confident in their ability to operate efficiently on four-days’ effort instead of five.
America has a notable overworking problem. Americans take fewer vacations and work longer hours than Europeans, and you can’t even say we’re enjoying it; last year, job unhappiness among US workers was at an all-time high, plus health problems related to workplace stress kill thousands every year. Overworking leads to burnout, which ultimately results in lower productivity — and what employer wants that?
The Bottom Line
So, what can be done? A slow implementation of the four-day work week seems like a good place to start. Unfortunately, this model will not be possible for all industries to adopt; it’ll be easiest for white-collar jobs in which professional, desk, managerial, or administrative work is being performed. Still, we have to start somewhere, if we want to reap the benefits made apparent by the UK trial.
A four-day work week can cut costs: It allows parents to be at home more (childcare is expensive!) and prevents the need to gas up the car for long commutes. There’s a good chance it’ll also increase workers’ overall sense of well-being (as we saw in the British study) — after all, who wouldn’t want a three-day weekend? It’s certainly a step in the right direction toward better work-life balance.
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