Four-Day Workweeks Show How Recovery Helps Us Work

Author: Natasha K.A. Wiebusch, XpertHR Legal Editor

Date: March 2, 2023

It's not groundbreaking that a study found that four-day workweeks make employees happier. If that were all it found, there wouldn't be much more to talk about

In fact, the study, formally titled the UK Four-Day Week Pilot, discovered much more. Employees were not only happier, but they were also healthier, less burned out and more productive. Participating employers also reported healthy revenue increases. Overall, the business impact of shorter weeks was overwhelmingly positive.

Despite the promising results, many employers are reportedly not convinced. Their concerns range from the feasibility of implementing four-day workweeks to simply not wanting to pay five-day salaries for four days of work.

Surely, whether employers should adopt a four-day week is an important question, but we can't lose the plot: the study, along with many others, shows us that employees need recovery.

It's Not About Hours, It's About Recovery

The UK study followed 61 companies as they piloted four-day workweeks between June and December of 2022. It made the following key findings for participating employees:

  • 39% of employees were less stressed.
  • 71% had reduced levels of burnout at the end of the trial. Anxiety, fatigue and sleep issues decreased, and mental and physical health improved.
  • 54% of employees felt it was easier to balance work and home responsibilities.

For employers, the business impact was clear:

  • Turnover decreased by 57%.
  • Revenues stayed the same throughout the trial. When compared with a similar period from previous years, organizations reported a 35% increase in revenue on average.
  • A large majority of participating companies were satisfied they were able to maintain business performance and productivity.

While results do vary, the research shows that people are less stressed, value their jobs more, and have better lives outside of work. In most cases, they are as productive in four days as they are in five.

Dr. Juliet Schor, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Boston College

The results illustrate that employees with reduced hours were more productive each working day when they worked less overall. According to Dr. Juliet Schor, a leading scholar in working time research and one of the leaders of the UK study, other research also shows that "in most cases, people are as productive in four days as they are in five."

That is, recovery enhances performance… and working long hours has diminishing returns.

Why Not All Employers Are on Board

If four-day workweeks have been studied for years, and the research results are positive overall, why isn't it the norm? Apparently, employers are still not on board.

According to Stanford economics professor, Nicholas Bloom, employers won't like paying employees the same amount for one less day of work. They see it as inefficient. Other employers are concerned that it just won't work. Rebecca Brooks, the founder and CEO of Alter Agents, would likely agree. Her company piloted a four-day workweek that resulted in more mistakes, inconsistencies, and lower employee satisfaction. Ultimately, Alter Agents abandoned the effort.

Further, the research isn't all positive. A Gallup study found that while employees working four days a week rated their lives better, they were more disengaged than employees working five days. Another pilot program in New Zealand found that four-day workweeks intensified work and managerial pressures, signaling that if leaders want shortened weeks to succeed, they will have to reconsider workloads and work organization.

To get employers on board, employees likely need help from the government, according to Dr. Schor. Some states are attempting to answer the call. In Maryland, for example, the legislature introduced a bill to create a pilot program in which qualified employers can participate and receive a tax break. California's legislature has also introduced a bill, redefining the 40-hour workweek to a four-day workweek.

Key Changes for Four-Day Workweek Success

For employers concerned that a four-day workweek won't be successful, Dr. Schor recommends work reorganization. This includes cutting out the least productive activities such as long or unnecessary meetings and personal tasks that can be shifted to the off day.

Employers should also consider whether they are practicing burnout culture, which glamorizes and rewards overworking. In the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic put a large crack in burnout culture, exposing just how unaligned it is with employee wellness. As a result, many employees now feel that it's just not worth it. If employers want strategies like four-day workweeks to succeed, they must help employees and leadership unlearn burnout culture.

Other Recovery Strategies

Though the four-day workweek has taken center stage as of late, it's not the only recovery strategy available to employers. Other recovery methods that help employees recharge include:

Xperthr Recovery Graphic

Research shows that these methods work. For example, taking short breaks at work, which are no longer than 10 minutes long, has been shown to increase employee well-being and performance.

Did you know?

Taking a break to scroll on your phone does not help your brain recover, according to a study. Study participants who took a phone break took 19% longer to complete an assigned task than those who took a break without a phone. They also solved 22% fewer problems than other participants.

Experts also support shorter workdays, noting that the most productive countries happen to have workweeks of less than 40 hours.

One productivity specialist, Steve Glaveski, made the case for a 6-hour workday. He pointed out that the reason employees may not feel like they can complete all their work in 6 hours is because of how modern organizations function, arguing that they sabotage productivity by creating an atmosphere of constant distraction and hyper-responsiveness. The solution? Change work, not the employee.

How to Foster Recovery at Your Organization

Employees and employers benefit from supported employee recovery. Whether that includes four-day workweeks will be up to each organization. Regardless, all employers that want better productivity and improved employee well-being should consider the following:

  • Coach employees to take breaks. Taking regular breaks throughout the day is a habit employees have to build. To do so, they need reminders and support from managers.
  • Reorganize work. Review what employees are spending their time doing. If they're answering dozens of emails, multi-tasking and managing interruptions, or attending meetings all day, consider making changes to support focused work.
  • Unlearn burnout culture. Call out burnout culture and create accountability systems to prevent its practice, such as mandatory PTO, company-wide days off, or team building exercises focused on recovery and wellness culture.
  • Provide productivity training. Show employees the value of recovery through training on how recovery helps wellness, productivity, and overall performance.