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If you’ve spent any time around the proverbial—perhaps still virtual—watercooler, you may have heard talk of companies whose employees have been receiving special perks to continue to lift morale and support them while continuing to work from home beyond the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.  

These perks range from organization to organization, from company-wide days off, like Google did back in April—citing burnout as its reasoning behind the entire organization’s shut down—to providing employees with resources needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle alongside the work given, like how Microsoft pays for employee gym memberships and other health-related costs.  

Additionally, many other companies have been experimenting with tactics to both reduce employee burnout and improve efficiency during the work week, from testing shorter workdays to periodic days off.  

This means that either conditionally—I.e., as long as a certain number of hours are put in before Friday, the day is off—or unconditionally, companies are promising to maintain their employees’ pay, and allow them to work less hours a week. 

Granted, the entire concept around a nine to five job itself is a construct that has been around long enough to have become ingrained into societal expectations, and these things are bound to change with time and perhaps drastic changes that are inherently going to be implemented—like say, the sudden shift to work from home, when we otherwise would have had to commute to an office five times a week.  

As you may know, the five-day work week itself was a drastic change from the six or even seven day working week of the 18th and even 19th centuries in North America (believe it or not, but many parts of France have already been implementing the 35-hour work week for over 20 years, now)!  

So, with this new look at the shorter work week, what is going to stay and what is going to go now? 

The 4-day theory 

While some countries and even some businesses within Canada and the U.S. have already began implementing practices like shorter workdays or seasonally shortened hours (that is, to allow employees to enjoy the fresh air as one would love while gazing out their window on a sunny Friday afternoon), others have been toying with more drastic changes to the work week in response to the overwhelming burnout many workers are facing these days. 

Many studies over this past year have examined those working from home due to COVID-19 restrictions, and the results have shown that overall, even more people are experiencing burnout this year while working from home than previous years.  

Especially for those working from home with children or others who require care and attention during and surrounding working hours, working from home has just meant longer, more distracted workdays or a lack of distinction between work and home life.  

As a means of tackling this problem that seems inherent in working from home particularly, a growing number of organizations have taken to reducing their employees’ hours from the typical 40 to 36 or 35 hours per week in order to support their employees’ wellbeing and support a more shortened but more productive work week.  

It does indeed sound great in theory, but of course, how does it work in practice? What can we expect from this new ideology that may become standard? 

The pros and cons 

Last month, Iceland revealed the results of its four-year experiment with over 2,500 of its workers having a reduced work week with four to five fewer hours each week, and not many were surprised by its positive outcomes.  

That is, with the trial’s overwhelming success in showing a decrease in perceived stress, burnout, and fatigue linked with a lack of a healthy work-life balance, the country is now showing an adoption of a shorter working week in 86% of its working population. 

So, how can there possibly be a downside to this experiment if the results have been staggeringly beneficial to employers and employees, who are both equally now able to spend time doing what they love, feel less drained, and feel more alert and productive during regular working hours? 

Depending on your organization, the downsides to a shorter working week can include a reduction in hours that customers are able to reach out to employees for service, or even just a lack of funds required to make up for the work that would normally be done during those hours by an employee.  

This includes, for example, the technology required to build and maintain a chatbot or other automated service that can but often doesn’t do as thorough a job as a human being when it comes to responding to troubleshooting or other customer services.  

As well, it’s important to recognize that the shorter week should not mean the same amount of hours compressed into fewer days to allow for Friday to be work-free. This can be detrimental and can even lead to a faster burnout or lack of retention, as employees who don’t finish their work or hours may feel inclined to have to work on the given day off—whether others in the office follow suit as well or not. 

Of course, this also goes without saying that some positions require different hours of work, and as such, may not be appropriate for the 4-day practice (think: construction, landscaping, computer programming, and other professions that require an extreme amount of physical labor or intense concentration and from which shorter and more periodic work weeks would be more beneficial).  

The lasting effects 

Ultimately, it seems that from the decrease in the 1900s, another shift to a shorter work week seems inevitable, and while many will be hesitant about it and its challenges that are sure to arise in its beginning stages, it’s safe to say that it’s certainly a possibility many of us will be facing in the near future.  

And maybe you’re an employer who isn’t ready to implement the four-day work week quite yet. You can still test the waters by either providing employees days off here and there to both allow them personal time to rest and catch up with family and friends, or even show support for their health and wellness by providing resources that can also help manage stress, fatigue, and the mental, physical, and emotional tolls the work week can take on the body year after year.  

This can be as simple as providing gym memberships, access to yoga or meditation classes or apps online, supporting and encouraging therapy, healthy eating, and mindfulness in the office or to those working individually at home.  

Ultimately, the 4-day work week can mean that employees—whether working remote or in-office—will have the energy, drive, and enthusiasm to keep up with their work while spending less hours doing so, and consequently, be able to spend more time beyond their computer desk and more time with loved ones and doing hobbies or passion projects.  

And the effects for the employees are just as beneficial to the employers, as well; happy employer means a better attitude and environment for all to enjoy and thrive under, which can translate to a better employee retention rate and overall productivity for the organization as a whole.  

Summary:

The 4-day work week is becoming an increasingly popular solution for employees who are feeling burnt out, particularly in the wake of the anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak in North America in 2020. The model that uses a reduced work week involves allowing employees to be able to rest and recover from work-related fatigue and stress, allowing them to return to work recharged and equally, if not more productive than they would be in a 40-hour work week.  

 If you liked this blog post, you might also like “Your Mental Health Matters: 10 Resources for Real Emotions”.