What are the benefits of a shorter workweek? Why are there also drawbacks?
The push to reduce work schedules gathered momentum during the pandemic, which forced employers to become more flexible about working arrangements and led many workers to reflect on unhealthy work cultures. However, workers and businesses are still trying to evaluate the viability of a shorter workweek.
Read on for an overview of shorter workweek benefits as well as the drawbacks to reducing working hours.
How Shorter Workweeks Are Being Used
When implementing a shorter workweek, the benefits and drawbacks can be difficult to disentangle, as a benefit to one party often comes at a cost to another. The pros and cons also depend on the type of shorter workweek and how it’s implemented.
For example, four-day workweeks have been piloted at a range of private companies and even by a few state and national governments. But it can be difficult to compare these pilots because they’ve all been implemented in slightly different ways. The main differences are in the type of four-day week and in the strategies used to squeeze a workweek into four days.
There are two broad types of four-day workweek: the compressed schedule and the reduced schedule. People on a compressed schedule work the same 40 hours per week, but in four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days. Examples of compressed schedules include Shake Shack’s 2021 trial for managers and the Utah state government’s year-long pilot, which began in 2008.
People on a reduced schedule work fewer hours with no reduction in pay. This might amount to a 4.5-day week, as with the United Arab Emirates government, or it might be an even shorter 32-hour week (four eight-hour days). Examples of 32-hour week pilots include software company Wildbit, which implemented a four-day week in 2017, and the UK national trial that’s currently in progress. In the UK model, participating employees make a commitment to follow the 100:80:100 model (100% of the salary for 80% of the time while maintaining 100% of the productivity of a five-day week).
Even within these broad categories, there’s a lot of variation in how people make them work. For example, the time-saving strategies of workers on reduced schedules might include reducing lunch hours, automating repetitive tasks, capping meeting length and attendance, designating meeting-free days, and setting aside dedicated quiet time for deep work.
We’ll look at the shorter workweek benefits and drawbacks separately for workers and businesses.
Benefits & Drawbacks for Workers
We usually think of workers as the main potential beneficiaries of a shorter workweek. But what do we actually know about how four-day working weeks affect workers? Here are the pros and cons we know about so far:
Benefits of a Shorter Workweek
- Workers benefit from increased happiness with shorter workweeks. In Formstack’s 2021 experiment, worker happiness increased by 14% following the change, while in a UK study over 75% of managers said that their staff were happier with four-day weeks. This happiness is probably linked to improved work-life balance, including having extra time to do chores or spend time with family.
- There’s less burnout. Workers with four-day workweeks report feeling fresher and more energetic. They’re also more engaged with their work. After assistant nurses in a Swedish nursing home switched to a 32-hour week in 2015, for example, the number of activities they organized for patients increased by 85%.
- Four-day weeks benefit workers financially. Employees with four-day weeks save money on commuting, childcare, work lunches, and even pet care. They can also use their extra day to increase their income, either by creating a “side hustle” or by taking another job. This possibility is especially important in difficult economies.
- Shorter workweeks improve workers’ physical and mental health. People working four-day weeks take fewer sick days, suggesting that they feel healthier than their five-day week counterparts.
Drawbacks of a Shorter Workweek
- Four-day weeks may make employees more stressed, even as they report being happier. For example, the Formstack employees who had switched to a 4.5-day week reported feeling 27% more stressed—though their chief HR officer commented that employees’ stress levels decreased over time and might have been caused by the changeover. It’s not surprising that some employees experience increased stress, either because the volume of work hasn’t diminished in line with the hours or because they’re being monitored more closely by stressed-out managers. (Other studies, however, have reported decreases in stress. During Perpetual Guardian’s New Zealand trial, employee stress decreased by 7 percentage points, and UK managers also reported that their employees were less stressed after the switch.)
- The “compressed schedule” version of the four-day workweek may lead to health problems. The risk of this is particularly high for workers with physical jobs, who are at an elevated risk of having an industrial accident if they work more than 12 hours at a time.
- In companies that make a four-day week optional, early adopters might be afraid their colleagues will think they’re slacking. In one survey of UK workers, for example, 45% were concerned that their workmates might judge them for working fewer hours.
Benefits & Drawbacks for Businesses
Businesses may not benefit as much as employees from shortening the workweek. After all, in most cases, they’re paying the same for fewer hours of work. But are four-day working weeks really that onerous for businesses?
Here are the pros and cons for businesses:
Benefits of a Shorter Workweek
- Some businesses have reported significant savings after implementing four-day weeks. In a survey of UK businesses, those that had adopted four-day weeks reported annual savings totaling £92 billion (US $108 billion) in 2019 and £104 billion (US $122 billion) in 2021. These savings largely come from:
- Increased productivity. Microsoft experimented with a four-day week in Japan and found that it boosted productivity by 40%. The revenue of nonprofit firm Healthwise went up and French company LDLC reported a revenue increase of 40%. This productivity increase comes partly from increased skill in prioritizing tasks and partly because workers no longer have to use work time to take care of non-work tasks.
- Fewer leave days. In the above survey of UK businesses, 62% of business leaders reported that employees were taking fewer sick days. The Utah government found that during their trial, employees were taking fewer days of both annual leave and sick leave.
- Savings on overhead costs. Brick-and-mortar businesses that implement four-day weeks save on water, electricity, and cleaning costs. The Utah government, for example, reported paying 13% less for energy (this fell short of the expected 20% because it was more complicated than expected to switch off some of the larger machines).
- Four-day weeks may also increase workers’ productivity in less tangible ways. Healthwise CEO Adam Husney said that switching to a four-day week saw more projects being delivered on time or ahead of time.
- Companies that offer a four-day workweek find it easier to attract high-quality applicants. The UK’s Atom Bank, for example, has seen applications for open positions rise 500% since it implemented the four-day week. The number of applications for Shake Shack also increased, with some employees saying they were attracted by saving on childcare costs one day a week. Attracting high volumes of candidates is especially important in highly competitive industries, such as tech, and in tight job markets like the current one. Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4DayWeek.com, points out that while it’s difficult for most companies to offer a salary in the top 1%, it’s much easier to offer a workweek in the top 1%.
- Four-day workweeks increase employee loyalty and decrease turnover. After Healthwise switched to a four-day week because of problems with employee turnover, unexpected turnover dropped to zero.
Drawbacks of a Shorter Workweek
- There may be increased expenses with a shorter workweek.
- As with any major administrative change, there are often changeover costs.
- Businesses that implement compressed schedules may have to pay overtime.
- Many businesses that implement 32-hour weeks will need to hire additional staff. This means they’ll incur more costs related to hiring and benefits.
- It may be complicated to set up, especially for larger companies. If businesses don’t plan well and make sure it’s sustainable, it’s liable to fail. The Wellcome Trust, for example, planned to implement a four-day week at its head office in 2019, but then had to walk back the commitment because it was “too operationally complex to implement.”
- It can affect the quality of customer service. The Utah government pilot had a staff approval rating of 85%, but the shortened workweek was ultimately discontinued because customers were upset they couldn’t access services on Fridays.
- The greater focus on efficiency means that staff spend less unstructured time together. This might reduce opportunities for collaboration, as well as taking away some of the more enjoyable social aspects of the job.