The enduring appeal of the four-day workweek

Companies all over the world are testing a four-day workweek. Could broad change be around the corner?

WeWork 101 N 1st Ave in Phoenix. Photograph by WeWork

Work by the Numbers is a deep-dive into the biggest trends, research, and surveys in the world of work and real estate.

Do we spend too much time working? For years, activists have proposed the idea that a shorter workweek will benefit both workers and businesses. The theory is similar to the one that led Henry Ford to institute a five-day workweek at his factories nearly 100 years ago: that workers will be happier and more productive if they have more free time

The idea of a shorter workweek is not new, and companies all over the world, starting mostly in Europe, have tested out the effects of a four-day workweek on their employees. But do fewer working hours really enrich people’s lives? Or do they just create a stressful work environment by compressing five days’ worth of work into four? With the Great Resignation showing few signs of slowing and worker burnout at an all-time high, the idea of a four-day workweek is gaining traction as employers look to support and retain talent in a competitive job market.

The promise of the four-day workweek

Academics have long believed that work hours would continue to fall as automation and technological advancements facilitate greater productivity. Economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in 1930 that his grandchildren would work a 15-hour week. And even Richard Nixon floated the idea of the GOP advocating for a four-day workweek when he was U.S. vice president in 1956, as part of a suite of policies designed to give families more time together.

Employees see several benefits to a four-day workweek
better work-life balance
more productivity
better mental health

It might not be a surprise that employees are in favor of a shorter workweek. A 2022 survey of 1,021 U.S. workers conducted by the experience management platform Qualtrics found that 92 percent said they wanted a four-day workweek—88 percent said a shorter workweek would improve their work-life balance, 79 percent said it would improve their mental health, and 82 percent said the change would make them more productive.

Despite the enthusiasm, respondents indicated that they were aware that some trade-offs might be necessary. While 74 percent said they were confident they could reach the same level of productivity, 72 percent said they might have to work longer hours over the four days in order to do so.

Global four-day workweek trials

The first major shortened workweek trial took place in Iceland between 2015 and 2019 and involved 2,500 workers across a variety of industries and job types. The trial reduced the number of weekly work hours from 40 to 35 or 36. The study found no significant drop in productivity or services, and worker well-being and work-life balance increased significantly. The success of the trial prompted 86 percent of the country’s workforce to adopt a reduced workweek. While most of these workers ultimately only cut one to five hours from their week, the study prompted wider international interest in the four-day workweek concept. 

Another major four-day workweek trial was conducted over eight weeks at the New Zealand–based estate planning company Perpetual Guardian in 2018 and was overseen by the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology. The trial was considered a success. The percentage of the company’s 240 employees reporting high levels of work-related stress dropped from 45 to 38 percent. Employees who said they had a good work-life balance jumped from 54 to 78 percent, and individual employee engagement increased between 30 and 40 percent. 

Perpetual Guardian soon went on to adopt the four-day model permanently, and the nonprofit organization 4 Day Week Global was founded to facilitate similar trials at companies all over the world, with the largest one to date currently taking place in the United Kingdom. The program requires that companies participating in their pilot implement the four-day model for six months and allow employees to work 32 hours without a cut in pay. The program focuses on reducing burnout and measures the impact of a shorter week on productivity, employee engagement, and stress levels. So far, 22 companies in the U.S. have taken part in the pilot program. 

The pros and cons of a four-day workweek

A shorter workweek gives employees more time to enjoy their lives outside of work. That could benefit their time at work by reducing burnout and facilitating a stronger work-life balance, helping employees to focus and create during work hours. One participant in 4 Day Week Global’s pilot, Idaho-based healthcare company Healthwise, saw a clear reduction in employee burnout. Its CEO, Adam Husney, praised the new model in a recent interview with NPR. “Our revenues went up this year more than we had budgeted,” Husney said. “We’ve delivered on products on time or ahead of where we have done. I would say the things we are able to measure have all been positive.”

The four-day workweek could also be a tool to fight climate change. One study from 2021 of 2,000 employees and 500 business leaders in the United Kingdom estimated that travel would decrease by over 691 miles per week if all organizations adopted a four-day workweek, reducing carbon emissions linked to commuting. Another study from 2008 found that shutting down buildings on Fridays could cut 6,000 metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions as a result of using less electricity and other utilities.

While the four-day workweek has many vocal champions, some results suggest that the model may actually increase stress if implemented the wrong way. One study from New Zealand looked at the impact of a four-day workweek on employees at a financial services company—and found that increased pressure from management to monitor and measure performance and productivity created a more stressful work environment, with little other benefit. These results may have more to do with that company’s specific work culture, but they indicate that the four-day workweek isn’t guaranteed to be a solution for workplace stress.

What employees say about the four-day workweek

Most workers who participated in four-day workweek trials saw a major change in their lives. In an interview with CNN Business, Lisa Gilbert, a lending services manager in England, said she appreciated the extra time she has been able to spend with her family. “I can really enjoy my weekend now because I’ve got my Friday for my chores and my other bits and pieces or… if I just want to take my mum out for a walk, I can do that now without feeling guilty,” she said.

In the same CNN Business segment, Samantha Losey, a managing director at London-based public relations agency Unity, was less fond of the change. She said, “To be totally honest with you, those first two weeks—really a mess. We were all over the shop. I thought I’d made a huge error. I didn’t know what I was doing.” While the transition was stressful, she acknowledged that after the fourth week, her team adjusted to the new hours. 

But most employees at Unity, including account director Emily Morrison, found that the extra time allowed them to embrace new hobbies outside work and helped to reduce burnout. “Having more downtime and less ‘Sunday scaries’ over the weekend has helped improve my mental health and [allowed me to] approach the week with a more positive attitude, rather than coming in stressed,” she said. Like many participants in the pilot program, her company is unlikely to return to a five-day workweek. 

The pandemic hastened the end of hustle culture, giving many workers the opportunity to reconnect with their lives outside of work. Now, as we return to the office, people want to find a way to maintain those connections. More companies than ever have embraced flexible work arrangements and have adjusted their real estate portfolios to accommodate workers looking for the freedom to work when and where they want. Whether or not the four-day workweek becomes the new normal, it’s clear that employees and leaders are ready to rethink the ways we work.

Bradley Little is a writer and content creator based in New York City.

Rethinking your workspace?

Was this article useful?
Research Studies