VICE Weekends Presented by Weis

We Asked Smart People if a Four-Day Workweek is Actually a Good Idea

"What is really important here is to ask employees what they want."
December 10, 2016, 9:00pm

This article is part of our VICE Weekends summer series, presented by Weis

Come Thursday 3pm, many of us probably fantasise about the thought of a four-day workweek. People who are for the condensed workweek–where five days of work are fit into four–believe that giving staff three blissful days to recover from the stresses and pressures of work will lead to increased productivity and creativity. The flip side to that leisurely coin is that in many cases the fatigue and stress that can accumulate over a longer-than-normal workday just isn't worth it.

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Dr Judy Rose from Griffith University's School of Education and Professional Studies says a short week every week can work for certain occupations. "It can be good a idea if you're in the right job. There is evidence to suggest that capping hours reduces absenteeism and can maintain or increase productivity," she says. "If your job has clear or set hours or shifts then it might be wellbeing-enhancing to have that added free day for leisure, relaxation, or exercise."

Dr Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and preeminent researcher in the psychological nature of human performance, has specifically studied the output of authors, musicians, and athletes. He found that when they limited their training time to no more than 4-5 hours, their ability for learning and continued improvement was optimised. "If the best performers in the world arrange their work schedule in that way it might be interesting to assess how it could improve the quality of work produced by most people," he says.

Should employers then be looking to cut the length of each workday instead of the number of days worked each week? "When planning and designing work activities they should be designed so individuals are not required to work on challenging tasks for longer than they can sustain full concentration," Dr Ericsson suggests. "I think that work activities should be individualised and the length of the workday should be adjusted to fit the job. I think that the future employer will be more interested in the quality of somebody's achievements rather than the amount of time that they invested in producing their products."

What about our tendency to stay mentally clocked-on even on our days off (for example, checking emails on a Saturday morning)? "Maintaining the boundary between work and personal life is important, but difficult to do in an increasingly technologically networked society," Dr Rose says. "What I have found as being important to managing time stress in my research is employees having access to flexibility. Unpredictability plays havoc on achieving work-life balance, because even leisure, exercise, and relaxing activities need to be scheduled around people's busy lives."

While the best structure for boosting productivity, promoting creativity, and reducing burnout may differ from person to person, finding a balance between work and life is vital across the board. When a balance can be struck, employees are more inclined to return to work rejuvenated and in the best frame of mind to tackle another week.

Dr Rose's advice for achieving this is a top-down approach. "The most powerful way to attain health and wellbeing in the workforce is to have bosses, including CEOs and managers, model work-life balance initiatives themselves. This could include a work at home day, four-day week, or casual Friday."

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"Providing rewards for creativity and productivity that is based on outcomes–not hours or face-time–is another way to change the focus," she says.

Flexibility and individualisation are also methods that Dr Ericsson puts forward. "My general advice would be to focus on the amount and quality of what people achieve and accomplish, and then give them freedom to allocate time to accomplish this."

It comes down to this: don't overwork. And don't stay too long at work.

In an ideal world, our bosses should be looking to tailor our schedules. Half days on a Friday or 'Summer Fridays', where employees are given long weekends exclusively over the summer months, would be a happy medium.

Dr Rose explains that these would be good options for companies to try. "If they prove popular, workable, and show to increase productivity and creativity or reduce absenteeism or staff turnover, then they could be increased. What is really important here is to ask employees what they want, and how they envision achieving better work-life balance."

This article is presented by Weis