Can the four day work week ... work?

31st Jul, 00:40

Over the past half a century, women’s work has undergone a seismic revolution. Yet the way men work remains stuck in the 1950s—and it's leading to depression, burnout, poor health and family breakdown.

As the coronavirus upends our assumptions about how work works, here's what we hope to see more of in the post-pandemic world.

Just what it sounds like

First mooted in the 1950s, the four day work week is a campaign to reduce the standard work week by one day. Three day weekends every weekend? It's not as a crazy as it sounds.

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Why only four days?

Writing almost 100 years ago, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would soon advance to such a degree that people would only need to work 15 hours a week.

Technology has certainly advanced, yet men are, on average, working the same number of hours, if not more than they were in Keynes' day. We're just checking emails now, rather than building cars.

But there's limited evidence to suggest that a culture of overwork is doing either employees or their bosses any good. Studies have shown that in an average 8.8 hour work day, only three hours are actually spent doing productive work.

Time to sandwich that productivity into a shorter space of time and let employees rest and recharge over a three-day weekend.

Why is it an issue?

The idea of the five day work week is, to put it simply, a very persistent myth.

There's no magic to the number that says this is the ideal amount of hours for a productive human to work each week – it was simply a concession made to factory workers in the aftermath of the Great Depression, when it was thought that shorter hours ("Two days off? How luxurious!") would boost employment.

Employers were suspicious back then as well, but it set the stage for the greatest economic expansion that the world has ever seen.

So, could we just shave another day off and do it all again?

How do we do it?

Many of the five million people on the JobKeeper payment have already been taken down to a four-day work week, if not less.

Now that they've had that taste of the permanent three day break – with more time for family, rest and exercise – workers might not be so hungry to slingshot straight back into the five-day grind.

This isn't simply a question of employee welfare: there's an extensive body of research  suggesting that shorter work weeks are associated with increased productivity, better job satisfaction, improved feelings of work-life balance, and lower corporate overheads.

That sounds like a win-win to us.

Is it already a thing?

In 2018, a New Zealand company named Perpetual Guardian made waves by announcing that they were dropping their entire 250 person staff down to four days a week—but still paying them their full-time wage.

After six months of the experiment, the company reported that productivity was up, stress was down, job satisfaction had improved and work-life balance was, well, in balance.

The company has, unsurprisingly, made the four-day work week a permanent state of affairs.

And with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern now floating the four-day work week as a solution to her country’s post-corona economic woes, it looks like Perpetual Guardian could be just the beginning.

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