Everyone loves a three-day weekend, and new trends in work might mean that every week is a little shorter. A four-day workweek may do more than give you an extra day to catch up on laundry, though. Research indicates that a shorter workweek benefits the employee, the workplace, and the environment.
What is a four-day workweek?
A four-day workweek is a schedule in which full-time employees are expected to work four days a week, instead of the traditional five, for the same pay. It’s often confused with a compressed workweek, in which people work a “normal” 35 to 40 hours in four days, followed by three days off.
Because these compressed schedules tend to lead to overwork and additional stress, a true four-day week maintains the same work schedule (seven to eight hours), but provides an additional day off. In contrast, the four-day workweek allows employees to work fewer hours without a reduction in pay.
The impact of a four-day workweek
Through various studies and trial programs, shifting from a five-day workweek to a four-day workweek has a largely positive impact on employees and businesses. Participants in trial programs across the globe, including the United Kingdom (UK), Iceland, New Zealand, Spain, and Japan, have highlighted an array of positive outcomes on employee mental health and well-being, as well as increased retention and resilience.
International studies on the four-day workweek
In 2022, the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, in collaboration with the think tank Autonomy, and researchers at Cambridge University and Boston College, organized a six-month trial pilot program where companies tried moving from a 40-hour workweek to a 32-hour workweek without a decrease in pay. The results were highly positive:
From 2015 to 2019, the Reykjavík City Council launched the largest four-day workweek experiment to date, involving 1% of the total workforce. The experiment was considered an “overwhelming success,” with the employees reporting increased morale, a reduction in burnout, better work-life balance — and no decrease in productivity.
Because of the success of this experiment, 86% of Iceland’s workforce is following suit, either working a reduced schedule or currently in negotiations to do so.
New Zealand has been experimenting with the 4-day work week for years. In 2018, the estate planning company Perpetual Guardian ran an eight-week trial of a 30-hour workweek where employees were paid for 37.5 hours. They saw increases in employee leadership, commitment, and work-life balance and a decrease in stress levels.
Pros and cons of a four-day workweek
A four-day workweek brings several important benefits — and a few considerable downsides. If you’re looking to make a case for reduced hours at your workplace, it’s worth taking the pros and cons into consideration.
Advantages of a four-day workweek:
- Increased productivity
- Reduced facilities cost
- Improved morale
One of the largest concerns about the four-day workweek has been disproven by the existing trials. Many companies worry that reducing the working hours would actually result in a reduction in productivity, but that hasn’t proven to be the case. Employees have been just as productive, if not more so, than they are in a full week. Furthermore, employees that aren’t burnt out tend to do better, more innovative work.
Reduced facilities cost
Large organizations discovered quickly during the pandemic that remote work has led to huge decreases in the amount of money spent on offices. That means reducing office square footage and related costs such as air conditioning, heating, electricity, and other in-person expenses. Many companies found themselves with a surplus in their human resources budgets, which they were then able to reallocate to employee wellness initiatives.
Employees in Iceland that participated in the four-day workweek trial reported improved morale and better work-life balance. At BetterUp, we emphasize the importance of taking time for this inner work. For workers who need to do thoughtful, collaborative work, taking down time is essential to perform at your best.
Disadvantages of a four-day workweek
- Not cost-effective for all industries
- Creates scheduling concerns
- Bait-and-switch issues
Not cost-effective for all industries
In Sweden, which tested a four-day workweek with nurses, the plan was scrapped because it was ultimately found to not be cost-effective. A true four-day workweek is a reduction in hours with no reduction in pay, meaning that more employees may have to be hired in industries that require seven-day-a-week coverage. This may offset any gains that would otherwise be made from reduced facility costs.
Creates scheduling concerns
A government organization found that customer satisfaction dropped during their four-day experiment since all employees had off on Friday. This created a hardship for their normal clientele. In companies that need to be open for most of the week, this could potentially be managed by offering a staggered schedule. Providing a four-day workweek may work with different days off for different people (similar to how shift employees work).
A four-day workweek is not the same as a compressed workweek. Although they are easily confused with each other, the benefits don’t come simply from the extra day off per week. Companies that attempted to offer a compressed schedule — one where employees worked 40 hours over four days — found that their employees actually experienced an increase in overwork and burnout.
The environmental impact of the four-day workweek
In May 2021, environmental and social justice collective Platform London released a report detailing the environmental impact of a shorter workweek. Their report highlights the reduction in carbon emissions from electricity usage and commuting. Fewer people heading to the office means reduced electricity consumption from fewer lights, air conditioners, and elevators running.
Many estimates put the reduction in carbon footprint at around 30% simply by offering one full day off per week. A more modest 10% reduction in hours (roughly three to four hours a week for most full-time workers) still translates to a 14.6% decrease in carbon emissions.
Companies embracing a four-day workweek
Though some companies worldwide are testing or embracing a four-day workweek, American companies are slower to jump on board. That said, some companies are willing to try it out. Here are some companies that have adopted the 4-day workweek:
- Bolt Financial
- DNS Filter
The four-day workweek bill
In an effort to democratize the four-day workweek across industries, Rep. Mark Takano of California’s 39th district reintroduced his 32-hour Workweek Act to Congress. His proposal would amend guidelines in the Fair Labor Standards Act by reducing the standard number of hours in the workweek from 40 to 32. These changes would apply to non-exempt workers rather than typically salaried employees.
The bottom line on a shorter workweek
Despite the evidence demonstrating the efficacy of a four-day workweek, the future of work in the US still looks to be many years away from seeing it become standard. More research needs to be done to cement its value and benefits.
Although the pandemic accelerated the shift towards reduced working hours, companies are beginning to push back, and employees are looking for greener pastures. As we navigate the new normal in the world of work, it’s almost certain that we’ll see more trials on how to successfully bring work-life balance to the forefront of the employee experience.