The case for a four-day week
Why we achieve more when we work less
You may have seen talk in the media in recent months about the concept of the four-day working week. Sounds great, doesn’t it?! We’ve all been the victim of the Sunday night blues, and experienced the rip in the space–time continuum that makes time speed up exponentially the moment 5.00pm on Friday hits and slow right down again come Monday morning. Just as you get into the swing of the weekend and feel like you can properly relax… It’s time to set your alarm for the new week, and so it goes, week after week, ad infinitum. How many times have you got up on Sunday morning convinced that just one more day and you’d skip into work smiling and ready for action? We’ve all been there.
Well you’ll be pleased to know that a wave of recent research has come to the conclusion that these feelings perhaps aren’t just an inherent aversion to work and a desire to cling on to any justification for a day off, nor is it a ‘give an inch, take a mile’ situation for employers. It turns out that maybe we’ve got a point. Maybe just one more day is enough to transform the hideous, treacherous mountain of the upcoming week into a moderate, actually rather pleasant looking hill that actually we quite fancy a walk up — and maybe there’s a pub at the top!?
It’s argued that a four-day working week “would slash unemployment and underemployment, tackle health conditions ranging from mental distress to high blood pressure, increase productivity, help the environment, improve family lives, encourage men to do more household tasks, and make people happier.” (Guardian, 2019) In fact, it’s not just argued, there’s now substantive research to support all of these claims. So if we know that a four-day working week would be better for business, and better for our mental and physical health, why have we been doing it wrong for so many years?
Unsurprisingly, the desire for a shorter working week isn’t a new one. It may make you feel better to learn that, whilst we are suffering the horrors of a five-day week, or an eight-hour shift, these were, in fact, the hard-won rewards of the labour movement in the late 19th century, prior to which excessive labour was characteristic of industrialised economies. Whilst the ill-effects of this were most obviously, and most concerningly at the time, physical, due to the nature of the labour workers were commonly engaged in, it would be wrong and short-sighted to believe that the Monday to Friday, 9.00–5.00 work life, while physically less demanding, doesn’t also cause harm.
While a century ago it was TB and lung disease from working in coal mines, and injuries sustained in unsafe work environments, now the greatest occupational hazard is stress and anxiety.
Whilst it’s easy to joke about the ‘Sunday night blues’, this rather diminishes what is actually a very real and potentially debilitating affliction. Mental ill health has deservedly come into the spotlight more recently, as science and technology have helped us to make huge advances in protecting and maintaining physical health, and in recognising the link between mental and physical ill health. Depression, anxiety, stress — all of these have physical manifestations and symptoms which will diminish engagement, enthusiasm, motivation, and productivity. Quite aside from the personal suffering they cause, undoubtedly the most concerning and obvious consequence, these are all attributes that are required — or at least, desired — of employees in the workplace. We’ve all had a run-in with Grumpy Glen from HR, with his bad attitude and snarky comments and thought, “Just have a day off, will you?” Well, quite.
Lack of time off, and the feeling of living to work rather than working to live can have a hugely detrimental impact on our temperament, attitude, and personality, in the worst cases leading to depression and/or anxiety. As well as mental health problems, stress and overwork increase the risk of a wide range of health problems, from stroke and heart attack to high blood pressure. Long working hours have been linked to a higher likelihood of excessive drinking, which is one of the greatest public health issues facing the UK and placing a huge economic burden on the NHS.
I’ve discussed why taking time off is good for people and businesses before at length. To put it bluntly, we’re working too much, too hard, too long, and it’s making us unwell. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that illness, physical or mental, is bad for business — it’s bad for individual businesses, it’s bad for the economy, it’s particularly bad for freelancers — and, as with other threats to business, we should be taking mitigating action.
Be honest with yourself: when you’re sat behind your desk, eight hours a day, are you working — I mean really working, full capacity, full concentration, maximum productivity — the whole time? Doubtful. If you added up all the time you spend making cups of tea, chatting with colleagues, getting distracted, distracting others, browsing Facebook, staring blankly at the wall, wishing you were at home… Wouldn’t it be better if you were? Those minutes and hours are dead time – no good to you, certainly no good to your employer. If you were promised an extra day off if you could get all your work done in four days, would you be more productive in those four days? What if that happened every week?
In recognition of the new understandings of productivity and concentration (have you tried the Pomodoro method? It’s life-changing!), and in pursuit of happier and healthier employees, many companies have turned to the idea of a four-day week in an attempt to get the best out of their employees for four days a week, rather than a mediocre employee who’s just thinking about their next holiday, for five. The important thing to remember here, and what some employers find it difficult to get their heads (and their accountant’s) around is that fewer hours doesn’t mean less work. It’s not just giving people an extra day off, hoping that they’ll work harder for the rest of the week.
Making a success of a four-day week requires a shift in focus from hours to results. It’s not about how many hours you want staff to work, it’s about what you want them to do, to achieve, within a given time frame. If you’re getting the results you want and need, does it matter how long it takes? This also allows people to work at their own pace, to be self-motivating, and to feel trusted and autonomous. It shows faith in your employees’ ability to do their job. A move toward KPIs rather than hours clocked as the measure of success at work and in business means that the job always gets done, but also frees up huge amounts of time for people to spend being productive, engaged, and fulfilled in other areas of their lives. And as we know, happy and fulfilled people are great for business.
If you’re looking for a system to manage leave, days off, and working patterns, you might want to check out Leave Dates. The ability to see everyone’s availability all in one place, in a visual and clear way, makes planning projects, holiday, meetings, and events much less stressful. Leave Dates removes the effort of manually managing leave and absence, giving you more time to get on with more important things, like running a business! The app is free for small teams and works on laptops, tablets and mobile phones.