by Juliet Shore – I’ve been in business since the 80s and I’ve never seen anything like what’s happening today. Concern is increasing due to this epidemic around the world. In the United States, more than half of employees report feeling stressed for most of the day. Job resignations are at a record high, running at four million per month. People are running.
In response, a growing number of companies are offering a four-day, 32-hour week, but with five pay days. Now, this is not a new idea, but the pandemic has given it a turbo. Employers are realizing that if they can rethink where people work, they can also consider how many days they spend at work.
Sounds great, but is it realistic? Well, actually, yes. Unlike policies where one party makes a profit at the expense of the other, the four-day week can benefit workers, businesses and society and can also be a gateway to tackling climate change.
But first, let’s talk about the workplace. For nearly a decade, companies and governments have been experimenting with shorter hours without pay cuts. While results can vary, research shows that people are less stressed, enjoy their work more, and live better lives outside of work. In most cases, they are as productive in four days as they are in five days. Businesses can also see benefits through low revenue and high quality candidate pools. Low burnout reduces health care costs, errors and poor service. Together with colleagues, I am studying four-day weekly trials currently underway in the US and Ireland, with early summer dates for the UK, New Zealand and Australia. We have thousands of employees participating.
Healthwise, an education company, couldn’t wait for our trial to begin. In June, his employees mass layoffs. By August, he had implemented a four-day week. Six months later, CEO Adam Husney reported that people are dramatically happier and have never been more productive. Vacation and sick days have decreased, revenue has gone up, and customer satisfaction scores are outstanding. In terms of health, employees spend their Fridays in family activities such as sports or errands. A mother of young children told that she can now get the occasional guilt-free pedicure. The four-day week can help you take care of yourself and manage the daily stress of systemic racism, sexism, and classism.
Now an important part of the model is that in exchange for one day off, people are willing to use up all their productivity in four days. So when they are spending less time at work, they are not necessarily working less. The secret component is the reorganization of work, eliminating less productive activities. Meetings are a primary goal. Most companies reduce attendance, duration, and number of attendees. At Healthwise, people save time by messaging colleagues instead of calling, which essentially involves some social chat. They have shifted personal tasks like doctor’s appointments to the day off. And yes the speed of office work also increases. “Let’s be honest,” explained one, “I’m not kidding or looking at Facebook, which I was doing.” But people have adapted and prefer to get their downtime as a full day off instead of snippets.
Government initiatives have had similar results. In 2015, the city of Reykjavik and then the Icelandic national government began offering 36 and 35 hour weeks, eventually involving more than 2,500 employees. The results have been remarkable. Physical and mental stress decreased while work ethic, work satisfaction, work-life balance, energy level, all improved. Productivity and service quality remained the same or improved, and the evidence was neutral in terms of revenue. Today, about 85% of all employees in Iceland have or are entitled to these hours. The governments of Spain and Scotland have announced weekly four-day trials in which they will subsidize the wages for the fifth day.
One reason for these successes is that with shorter work hours, each hour generally becomes more productive. Norway and Denmark, the two European countries with the lowest average working hours of around 1,380, have increased productivity. France and Germany are similar. In contrast, productivity is much lower in long-term countries such as Britain and Italy. The United States historically leads the world in productivity and would probably be better off now if their working hours weren’t so high. While tech companies make up the largest group adopting the shorter four-day hours, companies are moving into banking, PR, marketing and design, nonprofits, consumer goods, even a restaurant chain.
But it is also true that working 100% everywhere is not possible 80% of the time. Production boomed decades ago. Many teachers and flight attendants have to slow down, not step. And, of course, healthcare workers at the forefront of the pandemic need to work less, not more.
Here, another government effort is instructive. In 2014, the Swedish city of Gothenburg offered nurses a six-hour day at one of its facilities. As expected, nurses’ overall health and well-being improved, as did patient productivity and care. But in the process, they hired new employees for hours that weren’t covered. The surprising finding was how low sick pay and unemployment benefits helped offset those extra wages.
The Swedish case raises a bigger, more existential question. How much time should we devote to work? Jobs are becoming more and more in many countries, not less in demand. And the idea has also taken hold that rich countries need to tighten their backs. But in reality, we should go in the opposite direction as digitalization and artificial intelligence provide the possibility of reducing the working time. In the midst of pandemic fatigue, we must double the quality of life and the level of restoration of our social fabric, especially in prosperous countries where we already produce enough to create a decent standard of living for all .
And this route has the added benefit of addressing the climate crisis. With a four-day week, there is a clear impact of less commuting. But if we use productivity growth to reduce working hours by just a few percentage points per year, we can create a long-term decarbonization dynamic. Research by me and others has shown this over and over again in all countries, all states, all families. One reason is that when people are stressed over time, they choose faster, more polluting modes of travel and daily activities. Conversely, when people have more time instead of money, their carbon footprint is lower. But the biggest reason is about the size of the economy. By choosing to work less, countries are choosing not to maximize output, thus avoiding additional emissions. Carbon-related success stories such as Germany and Denmark have fewer annual hours. France and the Netherlands also have lower carbon emissions and time to work.
The four-day week is a down payment for a new way of living and working. And yes, we’re going to need government help if we want to move beyond innovative companies that already see merit. We can feel that everyone has a right to rest. And it perfectly brings out the logic of a universal basic income. Because without financial support, low income earners can’t take that fifth day off.
These days there is a lot of discussion about the future of work and the opportunities it brings. But there is more at stake here than opportunity. We have an imperative. An imperative to face the challenges of our present moment. Epidemics, burnout and depression, race and income inequalities, the climate crisis. The four-day week addresses each of these.
For now, we are starting company by company. But as momentum picks up and becomes universal, we will have transitioned from thinking of scarcity to appreciating the real wealth we have. Our ingenuity, our compassion and our humanity.
Juliet Shore is an economist and sociologist at Boston College. His research work focuses on the intersection of consumer society and climate change. The author of the New York Times bestseller The Overworked American, she is currently studying the weekly four-day trials that take place around the world. He has done extensive research on the sharing and gig economies and the relationship between work hours and carbon emissions. Shore’s other books include After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Was Hijacked and How to Get It Back and True Wealth. He has received several awards, including the Guggenheim and Radcliffe Scholarships, as well as the Leontief and Hermann Daly Awards in Economics.
Juliet Shore is an economist and sociologist at Boston College. His research work focuses on the intersection of consumer society and climate change. The author of the New York Times bestseller “The Overworked American,” she is currently studying four-day-a-week tests around the world.
Coffee enthusiast. Travel scholar. Infuriatingly humble zombie fanatic. Thinker. Professional twitter evangelist.