March 21, 2023
The recent UK experiment assessing the impact of a 4-day work week trialled for six months by over 60 UK organisations, has reportedly produced largely positive results. Over 90% of the organisations plan to continue with this structural change in work hours, although most will continue to a 12-month trial and then re-evaluate the costs and benefits.
The 4-day work week has also been trialled by organisations in other countries, including within the US, Australia and New Zealand. The key principle of the 4-day work week is no reduction in actual workload. Instead of working ‘smarter’ by reducing non-essential work (e.g., formal meetings) and informal occurrences (e.g., corridor conversations), aims to produce at least the same work productivity as a 5-day work week. Some UK organisations in this trial reported increased productivity by their workers, although this was only assessed in the short-term of course.
Importantly, for some organisations in this UK trial, the experiment was unsuccessful and was abandoned. Recent staff shortages have already intensified workloads for many employees, so increasing work intensification even further, even with the lure of a 3-day weekend, was just too difficult for some organisations to achieve. The issue of equality of this work hours structure for workers across different sectors of an organisation was also difficult for some to achieve. So, management and administrative workers were generally able to adapt to a four-day week more easily than could public-facing or operational workers, for example. Plus, organisations already under financial pressure post-COVID-19, had scarce financial capital available to hire more workers to cover the ‘fifth’ working day. So even with a staggered day off (e.g., having Wednesdays and Fridays as the nominated days off for different groups of staff), there were still insufficient workers available on these days to complete the core operating business.
"Recent staff shortages have already intensified workloads for many employees, so increasing work intensification even further, even with the lure of a 3-day weekend, was just too difficult for some organisations to achieve."
The concept of a shorter working week is not new. Both 3-day and 4-day working weeks have been trialled, with varying success over the last few decades, including for example, with healthcare workers and police officers. What is evident from all these trials, including the recent UK one, is repeating the core workplace wellbeing principles which organisational health psychology has been relaying to employers since work-related ‘technostress’ was first recognised in the 1980s. These wellbeing principles have been significantly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, to the extent that ‘work-life balance’ is now an admirable aim that most workers can strive for, rather than being primarily focused on new employed parents balancing intensive childcare demands.
These principles focus on:
- The effective utilisation of technology for work to provide more employee choice and control over where and when they work. For some workers this may mean a compressed work week of working fewer days, or working the same days but fewer hours per day. Certainly, there’s an increased permanence to working from home and avoiding the wastage of commuting time, which is showing few signs of diminishing post-COVID-19.
- Workers are certainly focused on work-life balance post-COVID-19. The traditional ‘male model’ of long work hours is thankfully now becoming as socially unacceptable as drink-driving. Instead, working flexibly with opportunities to also perform child school runs, participation in sport, fitness, or further training, or simply to walk the dog each evening is increasingly recognised by employers as being desirable for the achievement of healthy, engaged and productive workers.
- Treating high levels of employee stress and burnout seriously by a reduction in actual workloads, rather than introducing trendy initiatives which are only window-dressing (shoulder massages, mindfulness training, etc). Sending a massaged worker back to the same high workload will not reduce their stress levels in the long-term!
- The most effective way to reduce workloads is to provide sufficient resources – especially human. Employing more workers and spreading workloads is directly associated with increases in productivity and employee wellbeing, and there is long-term evidence to support this point.
- Finally, engaging workers in direct discussions about their working preferences. The most successful compressed working week trials were those which allowed workers to decide when they worked, including the organisation of their shift-work and rosters. Support from managers to enable such employee participatory decision-making processes is directly associated with gains in workers’ levels of wellbeing, commitment and performance.
"The most effective way to reduce workloads is to provide sufficient resources - especially human. Employing more workers and spreading workloads is directly associated with increases in productivity and employee wellbeing"
How to achieve balance?
So, these work wellbeing principles inform our understanding of what decent, respectable work looks like, and the structures we can utilise to now achieve respectable working environments for ourselves. The COVID-19 pandemic has served to heighten this awareness and has encouraged many workers to recognise that work isn’t actually the most important component of our lives. Whether you work 3, 4, or 5 days a week, having enough work to do (but not too much), which is suitably challenging and meaningful (but not impossible), and allows sufficient time for your important non-work activities (families, relationships, hobbies) is ultimately the key to achieving work wellbeing.
Professor Paula Brough is the Director of the Centre for Work, Organisation & Wellbeing at Griffith University. Paula is formerly Professor of Organisational Psychology at Griffith University. Her research focuses on occupational stress, coping, the psychological health of high-risk workers (e.g., emergency service workers), work-life balance, and the effective measurement of psychological constructs.