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The Great 4-Day Workweek Experiment

The Great 4-Day Workweek Experiment

As someone with Futuristic in my Top 5 Clifton Strengths profile, I am fascinated by what’s coming down the road. Workplace futurists are predicting trends that range from multi-generational behaviors to remote/hybrid roles, and the 4-day work week. Futurist David Houle calls the 2020s the most disruptive decade in history.

The post-pandemic journey has brought alarming levels of employee stress, burnout, and turnover in many organizations. The struggle navigating in-person, remote, and hybrid work options is causing additional stressors, and some organizations are experimenting with a 4-day work week to honor the highest prioritized value for most employees – flexibility.

Worker Wellbeing Matters

Gallup conducts global research about worker wellbeing and productivity and some studies support reducing the number of hours worked each day or week. American companies have been late to embrace this trend as Iceland conducted an experiment from 2015-2019 which resulted in reduced hours, same pay, and increased productivity. The impact of the 4-day work week was overwhelmingly positive with lower burnout, turnover, and higher employee well-being.

The pilot experimentation is taking off with Spain, Japan, Scotland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all test-driving decreased work hours without a reduction in pay. The model varies in organizations with options that include Fridays off, dedicated no-meeting days for deep dive concentration, and a 4-day model.

Correlation Between Time at Work and Employee Wellbeing

In June 2022, Gallup asked 12,313 full-time employees how many days they typically work in a week. For as much as it has been discussed, just 8% said they work four days a week -- up from 5% in 2020 -- while 84% said five days and 8% said six days.

  • Those who work six days a week had the highest rates of burnout, the lowest percentage of thriving overall wellbeing, and the highest active disengagement.
  • Those who worked five days a week had the highest engagement and lowest burnout rates.
  • Those with four-day work weeks had the lowest active disengagement, but they did not have significantly higher thriving well-being compared with those who work five days a week. They also reported higher rates of burnout compared with those who work five days per week.

When Gallup studied these same patterns in March 2020, those with four-day work weeks reported significantly higher overall well-being than those with five-day work weeks. The gap has now closed.

The Return on Investment

Gallup reports that, “… a 4-day work week may be advantageous for those who do not have the option to work remotely. While it doesn’t improve the likelihood that fully on-site workers will be engaged in their work or workplace, the four-day work week does reduce the chance that they will perceive work as miserable -- and increases their opportunity for thriving wellbeing. And as we noted, as many as 44% of on-site employees would change jobs for a four-day work week. As many as 44% of on-site employees would change jobs for a four-day work week. The Problem Isn’t the Number of Workdays -- It’s the Workplace.”

The 5-day workweek model dates to 1926 with Henry Ford standardizing a 40-hour workweek (down from 6 days a week) with the same pay on the automobile assembly line. This resulted in increased productivity with higher effort during the 5-day week.

The argument remains that the modern workplace empowered by technology rarely allows for the tether from work to personal time to be severed, or even paused. In the Knowledge Industry, workers have smartphones, devices, and technology that allow for 24/7 contact and the boundaries between work and personal time have moved from blurry to non-existent for many.

The Business Case

Recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and training new employees is a costly endeavor for every organization. Some studies show the investment of a new hire equals 30% of the employee’s annual salary plus the time it takes them to be fully up to speed in a new role. When employees are exhausted, burned out, and stressed – the quality of work, productivity, and engagement all decrease.

Gallup found:

When it comes to overall wellbeing, the quality of the work experience has 2.5x to 3x the impact of the number of days or hours worked.

The biggest rub for organizations is trying to create equitable flexible work schedules to empower employees. It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario, so companies need to embrace experimentation to test-drive offerings and revisit success and outcomes. The fact is that management does not always know (or care) what is best for their employees. Ask your employees what they need to do their best work.

Having candid and open-minded conversations is the best place to start. Be clear to employees that the experiment may or may not work. The goal is to improve the quality of life for employees, so they can do their best work and enjoy their lives.

The Cost of Wellbeing

Employees that are stressed and debilitated physically have a greater absenteeism rate, and higher health care costs, which directly impact a company’s bottom line.

Happily, American organizations are beginning to embrace a 4-day work week and the concept of experimenting with a variety of options to see what suits individuals and the company at large. It takes courage and futuristic moxie to test-drive options to determine what the best scenario is for the employees and the organization. Human capital is the greatest asset in every organization and it’s time to focus on empowering the people to create a sustainable culture of workplace wellness and high productivity. The great experiment is well worth taking.

Caroline Dowd-Higgins is passionate about unlocking the art-of-the-possible in her work with individuals and organizations as a certified executive coach, a best-selling author, a dynamic speaker, and a sought-after consultant. Her new book, “Your Career Advantage: Overcome Challenges to Achieve a Rewarding Work Life” is empowering people to enjoy their careers and love their lives. Caroline hosts the award winning podcast, Your Working Life with listeners in 16 countries. Her celebrated TEDxWOMEN talk about reframing failure is available on YouTube. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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