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Is It Time for the Four-Day Workweek?

KEY POINTS

  • The U.S. economy is currently beset by labor shortages and employee burnout.
  • A recent survey shows a strong majority of employees feel adopting a four-day workweek would be a constructive move.
  • Research indicates companies adopting a four-day week have improved productivity and reduced stress.

Headlines over the past year have told a tale of woe for businesses plagued by persistent labor shortages. Too often these days workers feel they’re dining on an unhealthy diet of stress, risk, fatigue, and burnout. Many have quit or gone out on their own.

Many are fed up with working in a hazardous Covid-19 environment without higher hazardous-level pay to compensate them for it. In some respects, it’s been a management nightmare. Yet amid this labor turmoil, one old, relatively simple solution suggested by a recent survey has gone virtually unnoticed: the four-day workweek.

A November 2021 survey from Eagle Hill Consulting found that 53 percent of American workers felt job “burnout” and one-third planned to leave their organization in the next 12 months. On the positive side, however, when asked about reducing burnout, “83 percent said a four-day workweek would help.” This solution was especially popular among younger workers and women.

The idea of a four-day workweek seems to have been tossed around since time immemorial, or at least since I entered the workforce back in the 1970s, but over the decades in the U.S. remarkably little has been done about it.

More productivity, less stress

Would companies have to rethink and re-engineer their logistical operations to make a four-day workweek feasible and viable? No doubt. Would it be simple? Nope. But would it be possible to restructure a great many more jobs than currently offered? I can’t imagine why not.

There are substantive reasons why a four-day workweek benefits organizations. A 2019 study from Henley Business School in the U.K. found that when companies adopted a four-day week, 64 percent reported “improvements in staff productivity.”

Not surprisingly, from an employee standpoint, this study showed workers were happier (78 percent) and less stressed (70 percent). Additionally, from a competitive standpoint, 63 percent of the employers believed the four-day week “helped them to attract and retain talent.”

These general sentiments, a shorter workweek would help with stress and work-life balance, are very similar to what I’ve heard for years in my own conversations with employees. Time, or lack of it, is virtually always an issue, and anything that helps busy people find more of it is gladly welcomed.

The nine most dangerous words

A Gallup study last fall noted that only 5 percent of the U.S. workforce currently has a four-day week. I sometimes think back to my own roles as an executive in communications and marketing (I retired from the corporate world in 2012) and wonder: Could I have satisfactorily performed my jobs with a four-day schedule? My answer is yes, absolutely.

Would this have required some operational adjustments? Yes, absolutely.

But was there a fundamental reason why a four-day structure could not have worked (other than a management culture that likely would have looked seriously askance at it)? I can’t think of any.

Why have American businesses been reluctant to think outside the box toward a shorter week? Inertia. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Don’t rock the boat when it’s sailing along smoothly. The easier course is to keep things running as they have been for many, many years. But the fact is the sailing isn’t so smooth right now.

Economists are calling the past year’s workforce exodus “The Great Resignation.” Just walk around the town I live in. Almost everywhere you look—banks, restaurants, shops, Starbucks, Walgreens, Walmart—have “help wanted” signs. Especially in lower-paying service jobs, labor is in markedly short supply.

Could a shorter work week be a tangible change in the right direction? In the Eagle Hill survey described above, 83 percent of respondents felt it would help. It’s hard to get 83 percent of Americans to agree on much of anything, except maybe that they like ice cream.

A number of years ago, I wrote a post based on my own experiences and observations called The Nine Most Dangerous Words In Business.

They were: This is the way we’ve always done it here, a reference to the resistance to change endemic in mature corporate cultures. I believe this kind of stay-the-course thinking has also kept the four-day workweek in the shadows. It’s long been a pleasant enough idea lacking any urgency to adopt it.

Today there’s more urgency. The new Covid Economy has laid it at our doorstep. In this context, an old management idea could well have constructive future value.

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