Will The Four-Day Work Week Ever Happen?

Work-related illnesses are increasing at an alarming rate. High blood pressure and mental health issues can be direct results of the stresses of our jobs. With people working for longer, retirement is an ever-distant possibility. Would people stay at companies for longer if they didn’t feel so burnt-out? Is it finally time for society to take a good long look at how we structure our working week?

For many, this is an unrealistic dream, but if we don’t keep asking the question, then it will never happen. Society changes when people demand change.

I should first mention that increases in technology have improved opportunities for flexible working. They have spawned a whole new type of “solopreneur”, a gun for hire, with a defined skillset and flexible client base. Freelancer sites like elance,peopleperhourfiverr and taskrabbit are changing the way many people structure our working week. However, for the majority of us “mere mortals”, the five-day working week is still very much a reality. Overtime is expected in many roles, and 0900-1800 is typical for most people. Then there is the commute home….

Ever since Keynes hypothesised in 1930 that people in 2030 would only need to work for 15 hours per week, there has been a section of society who have campaigned for a shorter but more productive working week. One of the richest men in the world Carlos Slim even recently argued for a three-day week, where people would work for 10-11 hours per day and work into their seventies. Evidence suggests that longer weeks can affect our productivity long term. There was a recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found individuals who worked 55 hours per week performed worse on some mental tests than those who only worked 40 hours per week. Tony Schwartz, the author of Be Excellent at Anything, told the Harvard Business Review that people work best in intense 90-minute bursts followed by periods of recovery, and that they could sustain this over a longer working day.

Do fewer days but longer hours per day mean more engaged and productive workers? Will it enable us to postpone our retirement yet further?

Some companies are starting to give their employees a choice of having a three-day weekend. As long as productivity is measured, this is no bad thing. Flexibility is the key consideration in this case, and allowing people to choose their working hours is one way of attracting the best talent. Companies such as Treehouse – an online service that teaches coding and web design has had a four day work week since they launched in 2010. In a competitive marketplace it undoubtedly gives them a recruiting edge above other tech firms. These companies are concerned with their employee’s well being, and employee retention will undoubtedly also be higher. When you consider the associated costs of employee turnover, in many industries this should be taken very seriously indeed.

Having said this, I don’t think that it will ever happen across the board, even though the overall benefits are significant. There will always be competitors who will work for the full five days. Would you be content sitting at home while they are making money and eating into your market share?

In our increasingly globalised world, unless every government took a common stance on this issue, there would be little chance of creating a level playing field.

No matter what the scientific proof, five will always be seen as better than four.

What do you think?