COVID-19 has spurred on many trends in the last couple of years, including working from home, the Great Resignation and the end of the five-day workweek.
Workers are reexamining their priorities to determine what matters most to them in both their careers and personal lives. For many, that means achieving a better work-life balance. And in several countries, this translates into a shorter workweek. In February 2022, Belgium introduced legislation to give employees the option of condensing the standard five-day workweek into four days. Those opting for the four-day workweek would work 9.5 hours per day.
Belgium is just the latest in a line of countries testing shorter workweeks. In 2015 and again in 2017, Iceland conducted trials of 2,500 workers and reduced their work hours from 40 to 35 or 36 hours per week, with no reduction in pay. A report published in June 2021 found productivity either stayed the same or increased in most of the sectors represented in the study. Workers in the study also reported reduction in stress and burnout levels, better health and better work-life balance.
The United States could be on track to join the trend as employers -- especially those in high-stress industries -- look for ways to attract and retain talent.
History of the 40-hour workweek
For decades, labor groups tried to enact labor reform measures. The United States Department of Labor was officially established in 1913, though elements of it existed since 1884. But it was the onset of the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" initiatives when momentum was gained.
In 1932, Sen. Hugo Black (D-Ala.) presented the Fair Labor Standards Act to Congress, but it was rejected due to its proposed 30-hour workweek. The proposal was designed to spread work around to reduce widespread unemployment.
Six years later, in 1938, Congress passed a revised version of Black's bill and codified the labor protections still observed today. It defined full-time employment as being eight hours per day, 40 hours per week. It also established a federal minimum wage, overtime pay and certain restrictions on child labor.
Why the 5-day workweek is dead
Fractures in the workplaces were revealed in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) study of 1,500 respondents published in February 2021.
- 89% of respondents reported a worsening of their work life.
- 85% of respondents said their well-being had gotten worse.
- 62% of respondents reported experiencing burnout "often" or "extremely often."
The same HBR piece cited overwork culture in the technology sector as a major cause of workplace dissatisfaction and burnout.
As businesses transitioned to remote work during the pandemic, employees found themselves more productive. And several studies showed that employees are generally healthier, happier and less prone to burnout when working reduced hours. The extra time spent with family, friends and hobbies translates to a more committed workforce.
Many workers found that without office distractions, they could accomplish as much in six or seven hours as they could in an eight- or nine-hour workday. In some cases, that meant an employee could justify taking a day off work during the week to use that extra day to recharge.
Read some reactions to the four-day workweek here.
Allowing employees to work from home or offering a hybrid workplace is no longer enough for businesses to attract talent. Many employers are also offering higher wages, reduced workloads and shorter workweeks.
Businesses sticking to the traditional 40-hour workweek may very well run into resistance. With more and more countries trialing and implementing fewer work hours, it's possible that the United States will eventually follow suit.
In July 2021, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) proposed a bill to reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours. Under the bill's provisions, employees could still work more than 32 hours, but they would be paid overtime. Takano said that with a shorter workweek, unemployed or underemployed Americans would have more opportunities for work once more hours were available to spread around. Those who previously worked 40 hours would either receive the same compensation for working 32 hours or be paid overtime for continuing to work 40-hour weeks. However, the bill was not passed.
Benefits of a 4-day workweek
Lower stress levels, lower risk of burnout and improvements in overall happiness are a few of the commonly cited reasons for moving to a reduced-hour workweek. But there are several lesser-known reasons as well.
- Better work results. The idea behind shorter workweeks is that employees are paid for the work they perform and the value they bring to their organization -- not just the number of hours worked. Once employees know they are being paid for their work and know their pay is dependent on their performance, they will begin to provide better-quality work more quickly.
- Lessened environmental impact. A three-day weekend could eliminate 45 million metric tons of carbon emissions in the U.S. alone, according to a 2021 Forbes article. Moreover, workers would be less tempted to go out for lunch or grab a fast-food meal on the drive home, resulting in less packaging waste.
- Work-life balance. With fewer hours spent at work, employees can achieve more in their personal time and feel more rested when they return to work.
- Community engagement. Often, helpers are discouraged from their good work by a simple lack of time. Reclaiming time from the workplace enables them to devote time to their favorite causes. This can lead to lower stress levels and a greater sense of community involvement.
How to move to a 4-day workweek
For employers who decide to move to shorter workweeks, there are some ways to transition employees into the new schedule.
1. Assess business needs
A four-day workweek isn't suitable for every business. For example, if a business model relies on 24/7 service, the company will need to ensure at least part of their staff is available at all times. This can be managed using a staggered schedule and shift work.
2. Determine how reduced hours might affect benefits
If businesses move employees from five to four days a week but maintains the same number of hours, this is less of an issue. But hours are reduced in a four-day workweek, businesses need to address how this will affect things such as vacation time accrual, sick time and overtime pay.
3. Ask employees for input
A good manager knows to ask employees for and listen to their input. Some employees might prefer a five-day workweek while others prefer a four-day week. It's important to listen to employee arguments for each and let everyone know their opinions matter.
4. Consider a trial run first
Before going all in on a reduced workweek, start with a single department, or for smaller companies, a few willing employees. If employees find the arrangement beneficial and company goals are still met or exceeded, businesses can expand the trial until the entire workforce is operating under the same parameters.
5. Give employees a choice, if possible
Some employees may prefer the five-day workweek. Maybe they just feel more comfortable with the traditional eight-hour days in a Monday-to-Friday schedule, or maybe they feel less productive when working fewer hours. Regardless of their reason, businesses should let workers choose if they would like to switch to a shorter workweek, if it is an option.
6. Teach employees how to work without interruptions
This might be harder in a remote or hybrid environment, but businesses should try their best to help employees develop the concentration necessary for a solid day of work without frequent breaks. This doesn't mean demanding that employees never leave their desk. Instead, remind them that if they're used to stretching their work out through the week, they'll need to buckle down and concentrate a bit harder to get through their workload for the day.
7. Clarify expectations with your team
Employers should communicate with their teams so they know what is expected of them in a shorter week. This could be done through informational sessions, company handbooks or knowledge bases. Businesses should let employees know that they want them to succeed and are interested in their feedback.
Read more here about how knowledge bases can assist with training.