There has been increasing interest recently in rethinking the standard 5-day work week. Specifically, would moving to a 4-day work week model be better overall, and what would the trade-offs be? A recent UK study adds to the research with a large study involving 61 companies in various industries, around 2,900 workers, over a six-month period. The results are very encouraging.
This kind of research is obviously difficult. It cannot be blinded, for example. Also, many of the personal outcomes measures are self-reported – subjects might have a motivation to present the 4-day work week in a positive light. There may also be an observer effect, where any change, no matter what it is and in which direction, might be followed by a positive self-report or even productivity.
With that in mind, the results of the study are still informative. They found:
The trial was a resounding success. Of the 61 companies that participated, 56 are continuing with the fourday week (92%), with 18 confirming the policy is a permanent change. Some of the most extensive benefits of shorter working hours were found in employees’ well-being. ‘Before and after’ data shows that 39% of employees were less stressed, and 71% had reduced levels of burnout at the end of the trial. Likewise, levels of anxiety, fatigue and sleep issues decreased, while mental and physical health both improved.
The most objective outcome was that revenue for the companies did not go down. In fact, in went up on average by 1.4%, with higher growth than the same period in the previous year. It’s also important to note that companies were able to choose their own method of reducing work hours – closing down on Friday, staggering days off, shifting hours seasonally, and even making the shorter schedule contingent on maintaining productivity. This result is consistent with previous research, which generally shows no decrease in productivity and significant increase in employee satisfaction.
While more and longer research is still necessary, so far it seems that going from basically a 5-day work week to a 4-day work week does not create any significant decrease in overall productivity. Mostly people compensate by working more efficiently – having shorter and more focused meetings, wasting less time, and finding productivity aids. They also took fewer sick days. But recently there has been a move to frame the question in terms of public health. The results of this study support that framing, but let’s take a close look.
The big effect is that many employees, as noted above, report less stress. Stress is a tricky outcome to deal with because it is so subjective, but is also plausibly results in physiological stress and worse sleep, which have objective physical outcomes. In the current study they found:
We found improvements in fatigue, with the average fatigue score falling from 2.56 to 2.12 (on a scale of 1-4, from never to daily), and 46% of employees reported a reduction in fatigue (with only 14% reporting an increase). The prevalence of insomnia and general sleep problems declined significantly. 40% saw a reduction in sleep difficulties, whilst 45% saw no change and only 15% saw increases.
Improvements in sleep is an objective outcome with broad health implications. It’s easy to see how this might be the case. Just having one more day a week to potentially sleep in can have large sleep benefits. But also, as the study found, increases in leisure and family time, the ability to do “self-admin” tasks during the week (which frees up weekends more) can reduce overall stress and allow more time for sleep. Many of the subjects reported that the reduced schedule gave them more time to “turn off” when they were at home, which also improved their sleep quality.
So far what we can say from the research is that there are two fairly consistent and strong signals in the data – productivity is not generally reduced by going to a 4-day work week model, and employee mental and physical well-being is enhanced. Again, this needs confirming research, but at least we can be fairly certain that the reduction will not be significantly harmful to companies, and may have significant benefits. This is enough to justify more broad adoption while progressing to the next stage of research (like going from a phase 2 to a phase 3 clinical trial).
There are other potential benefits as well, justifying further adoption and research. Fewer days of commuting means less time in cars and in traffic. This can save money and reduce CO2 emissions, while reducing overall traffic and further reducing stress. Many of the subjects report they will use their extra time to shop, which is positive for the economy. More satisfied employees also translated to less turnover. Reduced need for child care is also a potential money-saver.
We should note that the 5-day work week was not chosen based on any evidence. The 40 hour work week was mandated by regulation (although work hours have been increasing due to gig work, contract work, and other ways of getting around the regulations). There is likely some optimal balance between hours of work and increased productivity per unit of time. What the research is showing is that the 4-day work week may be closer to optimal than the 5-day work week. There is no reason, other than history, to consider the 5-day work week the default, and no scientific reason why the burden of evidence is entirely on the 4-day week. If we simply compare the two, the 4-day week seems to be superior.
But also, this study further showed that flexibility is likely to be very important, and perhaps just as important as the total number of hours. Different industries have different needs, as do different employees. There appears to be a significant potential for gain by reducing the total number of work hours within a framework of flexibility and enhanced efficiency.