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."

by Ariel Katz
11 December 2016, 9:00pm

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

Illustration by Ashley Goodall

Many employers and employees love the thought of a four-day workweek. Proponents of 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 reduced absenteeism and better 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.

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 are in the right job. There is evidence to suggest that capping hours reduces absenteeism and can maintain or increase productivity," she said. "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, who's research on expertise and the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance was cited in both Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers and Geoff Colvin's book Talent Is Overrated, also weighed in. "I think that efforts to lengthen the workday is clearly counter-productive for work that requires concentration and encourages quality," he said.

Anders' research looked specifically at authors, musicians and athletes, and showed that when they limit the time they train to no more than 4-5 hours their aptitude for learning and continued improvement is 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 said.

Being able to unshackle the brain from set locations and regimented processes is important. Getting up from a desk and out into the world can stimulate creative impulses and help lead weary minds toward new ideas and innovation.

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," Anders suggested. "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."

Workers' mental health is risked when tasked with longer hours over fewer days. When work-life balance isn't prioritised or when people are pushed beyond the period of time they can concentrate maximally by embarking on four 10-hour shifts, they're often more likely to acquire bad habits. To make matters worse, those bad habits can spill into the time they might normally be productive, making the shorter weeks even more wasteful.

"Maintaining the boundary between work and personal life is important, but difficult to do in an increasingly technologically networked society," Judy said of employees proclivity to staying mentally clocked on by checking work emails on their day off. "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 their productivity is enhanced.

Judy's advice for achieving this was a top-down approach. "I think that 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. Providing rewards for creativity and productivity that is based on outcomes–not hours or face-time–is another way to change the focus."

Flexibility and individualisation were also methods that Anders advised. "I think the length of the workday should be adjusted to fit the job. 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. Tailor schedules to the individual; not too long, not too short and that satisfies the employer's interest in productivity and the employee's health and wellbeing.

Half days on a Friday or 'Summer Fridays', where employees are given long weekends exclusively over the summer months, are a happy medium. Both are easy ways to introduce greater work-life flexibility and entice productivity without attracting any of the long term effects that can lead to bad habits.

"I think these options are a good starting point for organisations to try," said Judy. "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