What if instead of TGIF, it was Thank Goodness It’s Thursday? If it were up to a large majority of Americans, that would not only make them more productive at work but improve well-being in general.
About 73 percent of U.S. adults believe they’d be more productive in their job if they worked four days a week instead of five, according to exclusive polling data from the Harris Poll.
While it may seem like something you’ve been hearing about more over the past few years, it’s actually a pretty old concept. Labor reformers and other influencers have been batting around the idea since the turn of the 20th century, when union efforts reduced the six-day workweek to a five-day one — and invented the weekend in the process. And over the course of the first half of the 20th century, the standard workweek fell from 60 to 40 hours in many wealthy nations.
Also around this time, notable figures, like economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930, anticipated that number could drop even lower with industrial advances. And a few decades later, Richard Nixon, in a 1965 speech during his vice presidency, touted the four-day workweek, telling the New York Times, “Our hope is to double the standard of everyone’s living in ten years.”
Majority believes they’d be more productive in a four-day workweek
In the U.S., 80 percent of Gen Xers say they’d be much or somewhat more productive at work in a four-day (instead of five-day) workweek — that’s 8 or more percentage points higher than any other generation.
Millennials and boomers came in around 70 percent saying they’d be more productive in a four-day workweek, and those in Gen Z, who range in age from 18-25 and notably haven’t been in the workforce very long, came in with the lowest level at 64 percent.
Where people work doesn’t seem to be a major factor in whether someone thinks they’d be more productive in a shorter week. There was no statistical difference among polling results from remote, hybrid and in-person workers.
Does a four-day workweek … work?
As far as happiness goes, it definitely does. According to Gallup polling, U.S. workers who work four days a week, instead of five or six, are more likely to report a thriving well-being and less likely to report burnout.
And what about productivity?
A nonprofit, 4 Day Week Global, launched four-day workweek pilots in several countries this year, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Trials generally last six months.
One of the trials, which included 903 workers employed in 33 companies primarily in the United States and Ireland, wrapped up last month. The basic idea was that workers would work a compressed workweek: 80 percent of their typical weekly hours while keeping the same pay and productivity.
The results? Generally, success. Workers self-reported increased productivity and improved physical and mental health. They also reported less burnout, fatigue and work-family conflict, with 97 percent saying they wanted to keep the condensed schedule, according to the 4 Day Week Global report.
Juliet Schor, the trial’s lead researcher and a professor at Boston College, said that employees didn’t find the intensity of their job had increased, CNN reported.
The U.K.’s trial, which included 3,300 workers spanning 70 companies and concluded last month, has some promising preliminary results. While the results won’t be out officially until February, U.K. workers in the trial told CNN Business earlier this year that “the extra day off had changed their lives for the better, giving them more time to run errands, take up hobbies and simply recharge.”
A new kind of workweek is here to stay for some
Business leaders also came away with positive feelings. Of the 27 companies (out of 33) that completed the final survey, 18 plan on continuing shorter workweeks. As of when the report was released, the other companies still hadn’t released their final decisions, but all but one was leaning toward maintaining reduced schedules.
Other trials have seen similar successes.
About 86 percent of Iceland’s population has, or has access to, reduced working hours, according to last year’s report from Autonomy, a U.K.-based progressive think tank. This wasn’t always the case. The country took shorter workweeks for a test drive during two major trials in 2015 and 2019, conducted by the Reykjavik City Council and the national government, and it was met with such success that it finally stuck.
To make it work, workers might have the option to take off the fifth day, to shave off an hour of each workday or to take every other Friday off.
And in February, Belgium passed an initiative allowing workers to opt in to a compressed work schedule, without a loss of salary. “The goal is to give people and companies more freedom to arrange their work time,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.
Since covid, other countries — including Scotland, Japan, New Zealand, Finland and Spain — and many private companies in those countries have proposed taking the leap or at least launching trials.
Challenges to implementing a shorter workweek
Of course, implementing a shorter workweek also means overcoming “cultural and institutional inertia” on the part of business political leaders and just general American work culture. That inertia makes some researchers skeptical that these policies could be put into place on a meaningful scale in the U.S., Smithsonian Magazine reported.
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, told the New York Times in 2019 that when it comes to the four-day workweek, “In America? I’m not expecting it anytime soon.”
While these trials span industries — including tech, dining, manufacturing and construction — they still represent a relatively narrow sample of the population. Questions linger on how to broadly implement a four-day workweek policy more broadly. What about child care, for instance? Would companies provide on-site care? Are teachers working four-day weeks?
Making the switch means addressing weighing some pros and cons and addressing some challenges. While a company may have to pay for less sick leave, it may also have to hire more workers. Companies also would need to consider how reduced work hours might impact training or how employees communicate between shifts.
And even in places that saw successes, the transition hasn’t always been smooth. In Iceland, for example, Reykjavik Service Centres, one participating organization, had to experiment with how many hours to shave off, at one point finding it had shaved off one too many to get the work done, Time reported.
It has also meant taking a hard look at what meetings could be eliminated or shortened (and figuring out what really could have just been an email). Employees might also take doctor’s appointments outside of work hours. But it also sometimes meant that employees might still work longer hours on weeks when they had a Friday off to get everything done, the Time article said.
But with more time spent working remotely and less time spent commuting during covid, the prospect of reduced work hours became alluring for many workers. And an especially tight labor market led to some companies offering incentives to attract or retain workers. One of those perks? Yep — a shorter workweek.
So, while working shorter hours with improved well-being and productivity might have sounded too good to be true, it might not be as far in the distant future as you might think.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.