Shifting to a four-day, 32-hour workweek can boost employees’ mental and physical health without tanking revenues, a U.K.-based trial of dozens of employers found Tuesday, bolstering a push to shorten workweeks in the U.S.
The trial—led by Boston College, the University of Cambridge and British-based research institution Autonomy—followed 61 U.K businesses that switched their workers from 40- to 32-hour workweeks without reducing pay.
After the six-month survey ended, some 92% of participating companies chose to keep their employees on four-day workweeks, and 18 companies said the change would be permanent.
Participating employers reported a slight increase in revenue and a 57% drop in employee turnover during the trial—though the organizers note that external factors like the economy could have impacted the results.
Of the roughly 2,900 employees surveyed as part of the trial, 71% reported reduced levels of burnout, and 39% reported reduced stress after implementing four-day workweeks.
Most employees reported four-day workweeks made it easier to balance work with household jobs (54%) and social lives (62%)
The idea of a four-day workweek gained popularity after the Covid-19 pandemic led many people to push for more flexible work arrangements. Proponents say four-day workweeks increase employee well-being without sacrificing productivity. Director and co-founder of the Work Time Reduction Center Of Excellence Joe O’Connor tells PBS companies can cut work hours and maintain productivity by fixing time-wasters like overlong meetings, inefficient processes and other workplace distractions. O’Connor also argues that incentivizing workers with longer weekends increases the quality of efficiency of their work. The evidence, supporters say, is borne out in countries around the world. Iceland conducted multiple tests reducing work hours to 35 or 36 a week between 2015 and 2019, and found productivity stayed constant or improved in the majority of participating companies. Now, 86% of Iceland’s employees work fewer hours for the same pay. In Japan, Microsoft reported a 40% increase in productivity after giving employees five consecutive Fridays off in 2019. Four-day workweeks haven’t been widely adopted by U.S. employers, but a handful in the United States and abroad have tried offering employees fewer hours. Some of the most well-known include e-commerce company Bolt, real-world scavenger hunt creator GooseChase, fundraising platform Kickstarter and tech giant Panasonic. Other companies implement a modified version of a four-day workweek–cloud content filter DNSFilter has 32-hour weeks every other week.
Not all trial results are uniform. Daniel Hamermash, a professor emeritus at University of Texas at Austin, tells PBS that a four-day workweek is only feasible for some industries. Others, like auto manufacturing, won’t be able to reduce hours without also reducing output. In 2016, Sweden found that some smaller companies benefited from reduced work, while other, bigger businesses faced higher expenses. Another private trial at Formstack found that any changes in company policy will increase employees’ stress in the short term.
Companies participating in the U.K. trial typically used four alternate methods to reduce work hours if they didn’t want to eliminate Fridays. In a staggered model, employees alternate days off to maintain a Monday-Friday schedule. A decentralized model puts different departments on different work schedules depending on their needs. An annualized system requires workers’ annual average be 32 hours of work a week, but doesn’t specify a day off. A conditional model allows for a 32-hour workweek as long as performance targets are met.
The 40-hour workweek was enshrined in U.S. law in 1940, requiring employers to pay overtime to any staff who work additional hours. But calls for reduced work hours are about as old as the concept of work itself: Labor unions lobbied for eight-hour work days in the 19th century, Henry Ford reduced Ford Motor’s hours from 60 to 40 a week in 1926 and Kellog’s cereal company instituted a six-hour workday in 1946 that was phased out by 1985. During the Great Depression, the Senate passed a bill limiting the workweek to 30 hours to combat unemployment. Though the bill was initially supported by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it was ultimately abandoned in favor of New Deal legislation.
What We Don’t Know
No legislation to try out four-day workweeks has been implemented in the United States. A California assembly bill proposed a 32-hour workweek in March 2021, but it died in committee late that year. A 2021 bill in the U.S. House also proposed limiting the workweek to 32 hours, but it’s been relegated to the House Committee on Education and Labor for more than a year. A bill introduced in the Maryland legislature in January would establish a state-sponsored program to research how U.S. businesses fare when switching to 32-hour work weeks, offering participating businesses state tax credit for reducing work hours without reducing pay. Maryland’s bill, which would cap tax-credits paid to businesses at $750,000 over five years, is in committee hearings. University of Baltimore management professor Lisa Stickney told CNBC the bill has a lot of support from delegates and the Maryland community, giving it a good chance to pass.
The costs and benefits of switching to a 4-day work week (PBS)