Work four days a week, but get paid for five? It sounds too good to be true, but this debate is front and centre within numerous European economies, not only because of a culture shift toward accommodating flexible working but also because some evidence suggests it’s good for business. Many organizations in Europe are cutting workweeks, though not wages, from 36 hours (five days) to 28 hours (four days) to reduce burnout and make workers happier, more productive, and more committed to their employers.
The four-day work week is not a new idea: France implemented a reduction of working hours (les 35 heures) almost 20 years ago to create a better work-life balance for the nation. The measure is still heavily debated, with proponents saying it created jobs and preserves work-life balance and critics saying it reduces the competitiveness of French firms.
Leading today’s trend is the Netherlands, where the average weekly working time (taking into account both full-time and part-time workers) is about 29 hours — the lowest of any industrialized nation, according to the OECD. Dutch laws passed in 2000 to protect and promote work-life balance entitle all workers to fully paid vacation days and maternity and paternity leave.
Many UK organizations are also playing with the idea. Last month, one of us (Ben) worked with colleagues at Henley Business School to survey 505 business leaders and more than 2,000 employees in the UK to better understand the impact of the four-day week on Britain’s modern workforce. The results show a mixed bag of benefits and costs.
Half of the UK business leaders we surveyed reported that they’ve enabled a four-day workweek for some or all of their full-time employees, noting that employee satisfaction has improved, employee sickness has reduced, and savings of almost £92 billion (around 2% of total turnover) are being made each year.
Among workers, 77% identified a clear link between the four-day week and better quality of life. The practice is judged particularly attractive by 75% of the Gen Z and Gen X people we surveyed — and rather than relaxing, they’re using their additional time to upskill, volunteer, and build side hustles. Two-thirds (67%) of Gen Z respondents said a four-day workweek influences who they want to work for.
In organizations in which a shorter workweek has been implemented, nearly two-thirds (64%) of leaders reported increases in staff productivity and work quality due to a reduction of sick days and overall increased well-being. Another benefit to well-being, respondents noted, was the reduction of commutes. One less day at work helps make the weekly commute more bearable.
How have most firms implemented a shorter week? Respondents often said the practice is adopted by splitting employees into a rotating schedule, in which half do not work Mondays and the other half do not work Fridays. This allows firms to meet their customers’ demands by keeping premises open all week.
But the four-day workweek is not yet a silver bullet. While it enables firms to build competitive advantages with regards to their employer brand, the survey found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of leaders cited concerns: regulations regarding work contracts, and the associated bureaucracy to implement the four-day week, as well as challenges around staffing. All these elements make it unlikely, from our point of view, that the practice will spread en masse in the near future.
Some organizations have also scrapped efforts toward a four-day week. In 2019 the London-based Wellcome Trust, the world’s second-biggest research donor, ended a four-day week for its 800 head office staff; it was “too operationally complex to implement.” In the U.S., Treehouse, a large tech HR firm, implemented a four-day week in 2016, but as the firm failed to keep up with competition, it reverted to a five-day week.
Since the Wellcome Trust backtracking, business groups including the Confederation of British Industry have warned that mandating shorter workweeks weakens industry while hurting employment by increasing the cost of labor. Take Swedish health care, for example: The city of Gothenburg needed to hire more nurses to cover hours lost when implementing a six-hour workday in 2015, costing the city $1.3 million. Critics filed a motion that called on the city council to kill the plan, arguing it was unfair to continue investing taxpayers’ money in a scheme that was not economically sustainable. The plan was subsequently scrapped in 2017, and Daniel Bernmar, the councilor responsible for running Gothenburg’s elderly care said, “Could we do this [again]? The answer is no, it will be too expensive.”
Workers too have reservations. Nearly half (45%) of those we surveyed worried that spending less time at work would make colleagues think they’re lazy. This suggests there is a paradox in how employees perceive the practice: They want it implemented but are afraid to engage with it as first movers.
The recent attempts in the UK suggest the debate around the four-day workweek is only starting. While it can bring clear benefits with regards to employees’ well-being and ability to focus, implementation across organizations is made difficult by competitive and structural pressures in some sectors. In addition, there are still some negative perceptions of the practice, as well as concerns among workers regarding the way they will be seen by their peers and superiors.
Still, the idea requires proper consideration, and the potential benefits suggest a trial-and-error approach is the best way forward. Such a path would help us understand under which conditions a shorter workweek might succeed and when the benefits can outweigh the costs. The countries and organizations that can crack the code of the four-day week first could build a competitive advantage, if they can implement it in a way that maximizes the well-being benefit on the longer term while minimizing the short-term rise in labor and operational costs.