- Employees with a four-day work week rate their overall lives better
- Yet, shorter work weeks show a higher percentage of disengaged employees
- Employers should focus on improving the work experience first
Amid disturbing levels of employee stress and burnout, some organizations are considering what might have been unthinkable a few years ago: reducing the work week to four days.
The four-day work week is a controversial idea, but is it a good one? Or are there better ways to promote worker wellbeing and productivity?
Some studies support reducing the number of hours worked each week. An experiment conducted in Iceland between 2015 and 2019 found that reducing hours while keeping pay the same increased productivity.
Researchers also reported that employees with a four-day work week had lower burnout and higher wellbeing.
A similar work model -- a four-day work week trial -- is being tested in Spain. In Japan, employers are urged to allow their employees to work four 10-hour days. And Scotland recently announced a policy to cut working hours by 20% without a decrease in pay.
Organizations are running their own experiments as well. A New Zealand company reduced employees’ hours from 37.5 to 30 per week and allowed them to decide what days they would work. Another organization gave employees every other Friday off; according to the CEO, some workers enjoy using that day for individual “deep work,” undistracted by meetings or calls.
As of this writing, the U.K. was in the midst of a six-month trial of the four-day work week and its impact on employee wellbeing and productivity. Similar pilot studies are also taking place in Ireland, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The Complex Relationships Among Time, Work and 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.
Gallup also collected employee engagement and wellbeing data for these employees. Overall, here’s what we found:
- 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 work 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 wellbeing 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 wellbeing than those with five-day work weeks. The gap has now closed.
Our data suggest that a four-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 in the previous chapter, 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
Debates over changing the work week aren’t new. In 1926, Ford Motor Company standardized a five-day work week from the prevalent six-day work week. Ford’s leaders theorized that fewer days worked with the same pay would increase productivity through higher effort while at work.
But beneath the long-standing debate over the length of the work week lies a deeper question about the nature of work itself.
Consider these findings:
- Two-thirds or more of engaged employees are thriving in their overall lives regardless of how many days they work per week.
- An analysis of working populations in seven regions of the world found that for people with low job satisfaction and no opportunity to do what they do best, increasing the hours they worked led to declines in positive daily experiences and life evaluations. But the result was very different among employees with higher job satisfaction and an opportunity to do what they do best: Positive daily experiences and life evaluations did not substantially deteriorate when the number of hours they worked each day increased from five to 10.
- 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.
All of this complicates the question of whether implementing a four-day work week is the right way to promote employee wellbeing.
If your goal is to build an engaging workplace culture, shortening the work week may not be the best place to start. But it is an option that on-site employees say they would change jobs for, so you need to consider that in addition to the overall wellbeing benefits and reduction in work misery.
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.
While four-day work weeks may be a good idea for some individuals or organizations, policies that seek to control work-life “balance” are based on two dubious assumptions: that work is inevitably a bad thing, and that management knows what works best for all people.
The real problem is that most employees are poorly managed. Globally, nearly eight in 10 employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work. In the U.S., it’s almost seven in 10. These people are spending their workday watching the clock, intentionally working against their employer or planning their escape -- a symptom of an unhappy workplace.
If instead of shortening the work week, employers focused on improving the quality of the work experience, they could nearly triple the positive influence on their employees’ lives.
The four-day work week could work for you -- but there's better places to begin:
- Ensure greater job satisfaction by allowing employees to do what they do best using CliftonStrengths.
- Explore employee engagement solutions that improve the quality of your employees’ work experience.
- Learn how workplace science can help you elevate your employees’ experience and empower your organizational culture.