Is a four-day workweek the cure for burnout? 

Is a four-day workweek the cure for burnout?

If you feel exhausted, you’re not alone: According to Mercer’s 2022-2023 Global Talent Trends Study, 81% of employees are worried about burning out this year. The pandemic undoubtedly accelerated work fatigue, blurring the line between career and personal, and in some industries, making work more intense. The pandemic also ushered in an era of flexible-working innovation, which is now calling into question just how effective and sustainable our work practices really are.

One idea gaining momentum is whether the four-day workweek might be an answer to employee exhaustion and waning productivity. Our research shows that 63% of companies are open to considering a four-day workweek, with 30% implementing it in at least one location or business unit last year (organizations who anticipated double-digit growth this year were even further ahead on implementation). Flexible working is clearly a priority coming out of this pandemic period, with “Flexibility for All” being enshrined in The World Economic Forum’s Good Work Framework and 1 in 5 companies having added a senior role dedicated to flexible/remote/hybrid work. Are flexible arrangements enough, or does addressing energy levels and productivity require a fresh look at how we schedule our work and non-work time?

As flexibility takes hold around the world, how far can we take it?

The 4 Day Week Global organization is leading the charge with the world’s largest trial. Over six months in 2022, more than 3,000 workers in 70 UK-based firms across various industries will take a full day off every week. Participating employers are paying 100% of salaries for 80% of the work.

By creating what it views as a more sustainable work environment, the 4 Day Week pilot expects to see measurable improvement in business productivity and in employees’ mental and physical health. The location for this experiment makes sense: Our research shows that employees in the UK reported the lowest energy levels out of the 16 participating countries (significantly lower than prior years), so it will be interesting to see how a shortened workweek makes a difference to the collective sense of fatigue, as well as to other well-being and productivity outcomes.

Other countries are running similar pilot programs. In Belgium, employees are legally able to opt for a four-day workweek, covering the same total hours with longer days. A successful four-day workweek trial in Iceland resulted in widespread adoption of reduced hours, with most employees taking 1-3 hours off each week. France and Italy are considering legislation to codify additional flex rights, while the Netherlands passed legislation granting remote working flexibility as a legal right and the UK has an active consultation process happening around flexibility more broadly. The United Arab Emirates has already adopted a 4.5-day workweek, kicking off the weekend on Friday afternoon. One study by Henley Business School reports that two-thirds of business leaders who engaged in a four-day workweek witnessed  improvements in productivity, while their employees felt less stressed (70%), happier (78%) and took less time off (62%). With results like these, it is no surprise shortened workweeks are a globally discussed topic. A happier, healthier and productive team — I’m willing to pay for that!

The five-day workweek emerged in 1908, when a New England spinning mill gave workers Saturday and Sunday off so that Jewish workers could observe the Sabbath. But it was automobile magnate Henry Ford who brought a reduced workweek into the mainstream in 1926, heralding the benefits of increased productivity stemming from increased downtime. The question now is whether a further reduction in working days could have a similar impact on work output and the economy. 

Could a four-day workweek level the playing field?

According to the International Monetary Fund, the answer is yes. Four-day arrangements are especially good options for the 100 million workers globally who cannot perform their jobs remotely. As we all experiment with flexible schedules, it has become even more clear that it is easier to design flexibility for knowledge workers than it is for healthcare providers, construction workers and retail staff, to name a few jobs considered “essential” and tied to location. It will not surprise you to learn that employees in these three industries are thriving less than their peers this year.

As we embark on these pilots, it is important to think inclusively to ensure we design and schedule work that delivers better outcomes for all. Just as advances in self-checkout technology have changed the role of the retail clerk and AI has impacted radiography technicians, we know it is possible to design efficient ways to deliver all types of work – knowledge, frontline, essential, manual. Technology has often served as a great equalizer. But when work is redesigned taking into account AI and automation, there can be unintended consequences for different segments of the workforce – with some feeling like that they are losing out. For example, the automation of tasks has not led to the promised redeployment of talent toward more strategic pursuits. Part of the problem is a lack of time — that is, time to learn new work habits (for example, where, when and with whom to intentionally work when everyone is accessible 24/7), time to learn new technologies (so that we move beyond immediate new features and achieve true productivity gains through full adoption of the relevant technology) and time to learn the new strategic and creative skills necessary to leverage a human advantage for jobs of the future.

Perceptions of inequity around which jobs can benefit from automation, and which are available for flexible work, has led to mounting resentment as the value proposition for different populations evolves along different trajectories. For now, a greater openness to job sharing, split shifts and AI-driven scheduling will be a necessity to bridge the time and productivity gap. And it is worth asking – for care workers and those in services industries, is time off really the best route to improving well-being and tackling the health and wealth protection gap? Or is raising wages a more impactful solution?

The case for intentional work design and intentional working

Several business trends are making room for the four-day workweek. The continued adoption of AI and automation, as well as the broadening of the talent marketplace inside and outside companies, are heralding new ways to get work done. This is driving a rethink of the work operating model with a premium placed on agile working, flow-to-work talent models and enhanced adaptive capacity across the enterprise. If relieving fatigue and burnout are very much a response to our recent collective experience, maybe COVID-19’s lasting impact is in being the catalyst for making well-being an outcome of work design as we reset for a more human-centered age.  

Designing jobs that employees crave and work environments that bring out the best in people has always been a pursuit of organizational psychologists, who have long underscored the importance of autonomy, competence and relatedness as pivotal to fulfilling work (see as far back as 1970, with the likes of Deci and Ryan). Much of this holds true today – people want agency over their work, a sense of belonging, and opportunities to learn and grow. What has changed is the ways in which this can be achieved (for example, via new technologies) but holding us back is our collective resistance to adapting to these new ways of working. Individual habits die hard, and organizational ones even more so. Intentional work design and intentional working – which involves paying attention to how we spend our time – are necessary steps to an enhanced employee experience. This is why these four-day workweek trials are so exciting – they give us a chance to experiment and learn in real-time.

Four types of adjusted workweeks to consider

Employees work the same total hours a week as before but fit them into fewer days (for example, 40 hours are worked across four days instead of five). This allows for three days off, the concern is that working even longer hours each day may not address fatigue if that is a driver for moving towards a 4 day arrangement.

Employees continue to work eight-hour days, with regular breaks — for example, one day off per week (working four days instead of five) or one to two days off per fortnight (working nine days instead of 10). Employers may reduce pay by 10-20% or share the cost with employees to offset (work one day less a week but reduce pay by only 10% instead of 20%). With concerns around the rising cost of living, the appeal of time off for less pay is likely to wane.

Two or more employees work two to four days per week, often (but not always) with one day of overlap. Similar to part-time working, this respects the need for continuity and can provide greater resilience. While this incurs increased costs for the employer, the trade-off is enhanced business resilience by mitigating the risk of a brittle organizational design.

People choose the number of days they work each week, either as external contractors (e.g., as part of a skill-bank scheme or freelancer pool) or by entering an internal gig working/talent marketplace arrangement. Those who opt in enjoy greater control but may lose social protections such as a steady income, health insurance and retirement benefits. Some innovative programs, such as Unilever’s U-Work, mitigate these trade-offs. 

Flexibility: The key to employees’ hearts and a cornerstone of ESG

Mercer’s research shows that employees are demanding more control over when and how they work. A stat that speaks volumes: One in three employees would give up a pay increase this year in return for a fully flexible or compressed workweek. With cost of living concerns and an uncertain economic outlook, offering time off could be one way for employers to tackle wage inflation. It can also serve as a powerful retention driver, as our research shows that flexibility is a strong element of the employee value proposition and is the number two reason why employees have stayed with their company (just after job security).

On the talent attraction side, Mercer research shows that workers gravitate to companies with a strong brand and to those that take responsibility for ESG and sustainability. Four-day workweeks can have broader sustainability implications beyond delivering on a company’s social responsibility and worker health agenda. For example, there is potential environmental upside by cutting down a company’s days of operation and/or reducing employees’ commutes.

There are other social benefits too, such as levelling the gender playing field by allowing more time for domestic and familial duties (cited as key to increasing female participation in the workplace). Both the societal value of reduced working hours and the consequent economic impact will reveal themselves as these country experiments play out. 

The time might be right for less time at work, but are we addressing the right issue?

With a tight talent market and rising cost of living, are work schedules where we should be focusing our efforts? We have already established that employees value flexibility and control over their time. But it could be that poor work design and lackluster execution of new work models are causing people to want more time away from work to offset intolerable workloads, toxic work environments and poor work habits. Might we be better served addressing these issues head on?

With opt-in flexible options, many more people may elect to work less than full time. This could create a “them and us” mentality as the workforce splits between those who are core employees and those that are contract/project workers. A four-day workweek could help mitigate this risk. It may also offset concerns around FOMOW (fear of missing out at work), which is driving some remote workers back into the office. FOMOW is not just about being out of the loop on water cooler gossip; one in four employees believe that reduced face-time can impact promotion and pay decisions. But the real gift of a shortened workweek is that it places a far greater focus on how leaders and workers can more effectively partner – helping them to work across temporal, digital and cultural boundaries.

Another consideration is the wider role that work plays in our society today, in terms of bringing structure to our lives, synchronicity in work/play time, and the symbiotic relationship of work with coffee shops, commuter trains, work spaces, etc. Today, preparing for work, going to work, supporting workers and their health, nutrition, commuting needs, etc is an industry around which society is arranged. If the move to a four-day workweek truly means we are working smarter, absorbing unproductive time, how would the additional time away from work be spent – greater consumption, greater learning – and what benefit that might bring to society as a whole? Organizations and governments have a responsibility for ensuring the continued employability of their populations – could additional leisure time help or hinder these efforts? We see crime rates go up when employment drops, and societal rifts widen when more people are below the poverty line. But is enough research being done on the impact of shorter workweeks on entrepreneurialism, innovation and civic engagement? Both government and corporate leaders are discussing these wider questions with pandemic lessons in mind. For example, how much can mental health issues in Gen Z be attributed to a lack of structure, more time at home, and less social connection during Covid? As we consider enterprise-wide or country-wide shifts in our work/life patterns, it is important to ensure we do not erode the fundamental pillars of society.

Risk considerations with a four-day workweek 

As people focus on achieving more in less time, there is the potential to lose some of the social connectivity that comes from “water cooler” discussions (in person or virtual). Our research shows that most people work for more than a paycheck, with personal connection being a driver of engagement and retention.

Risk Mitigation: how do we ensure that If people see work as little more than task delivery, that the social benefits of working together are not lost. How do we guard against attrition and mental health issues arising as the psychological contract and structure of work time weakness?

As employees are empowered to manage their schedules and measured on the outcomes they are able to achieve, will this lead to over-indexing on work accomplishments?

Risk Mitigation: How do counter the fact that employees are already struggling to find time for upskilling during a five-day workweek. Howe do we ensure that work intensification does not detract further from teamworking?

Some companies say that the fifth day is for learning, while others see it as a fully personal day off or even a chance to explore new employment horizons.

Risk mitigation: What are the contractual implications if employees work for a competitor? Or engage in a risky activity? Does ownership of IP and products arise as an issue if they innovate on day five? What cyber risks increase with multiple employers? Driving ‘good citizen’ values will rise in importance with a distributed work model.

The four-day workweek: Just one lever in your toolkit

In itself, shortening the workweek will not combat employee fatigue, nor is it a silver bullet for increasing engagement, boosting productivity, stimulating learning and retaining top talent. But early indicators are suggesting it can help.

Wherever you land on the merits of shortened workweeks, it’s clear that recent “return to workplace” efforts are not giving us the insights we need. Despite two-thirds of organizations saying their workers have at least partially returned to onsite work, less than half are complying with established hybrid working arrangements. There is a risk that these return-to-work practices become our future of work practices. Instead, companies can take advantage of this time to stop and rethink work habits beyond the narrow concepts of when and where – by exploring how and with whom.

Here are some steps to get started:

  1. Hear from employees firsthand.
    Offer a variety of communication channels that different personality types are comfortable with, including surveys and digital listening sessions. Determine how people feel about work efficiency, including decision making, what gets in the way of effective working and what would help them enjoy their working experiences more. Encourage employee self-reflection on their own work habits.
  2. Analyze labor flow to identify blockages.
    Varying work schedules are not a solution to unfulfilling jobs, draining work environments and organizational complexity. Consider where you have low engagement, high turnover, and/or skills shortages by level/department, then target critical populations for change that might benefit from a four-day model or increased job attractiveness. Consider an evaluation of work intensity and impact evaluation.
  3. Deconstruct work to see new possibilities.
    Jobs with task repetition are ripe for automation opportunities. Re-evaluate the level of skill needed to meet demand and consider worker dependences to see how a four-day workweek would impact productivity and customer service. Evaluate the affordability of work model changes, including benefits, absenteeism and technology needed to deliver.
  4. Co-create and experiment.
    Employees are more invested in work models when they have a hand in creating them. Co-create with people inside the organization and engage external experts to challenge conventional wisdom on how work is being done today. Experiments focused on assessing real-world implications of varied work schedules on business continuity, learning and health outcomes, and pay can provide hard data to build a case for change.
The four-day workweek, like universal income and good work standards, addresses societal and economic rifts that are a product of practices that no longer serve society well. Even with longer hours and a heavy investment in technology and automation, nations have not grown their real gross domestic product, and efficiency and job upgrades that were promised have not been fully realized. Of course we need to consider the dents to our mental well-being and to our societal fabric as we embrace new work schedules. But at the same time, without a way to build the capacity and capability to grow into the new world of work, we are at risk of greater economic deprivation and social unrest ahead. I’ll leave you with this final thought – when we asked more than 5,000 employees around the world what they envisage as the future of work, the number one answer was more balance.  Perhaps the four-day workweek is an answer to this prayer – that is universal across genders, generations and geographies.

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