Four-day weeks can burn you out


The disruptions of the Covid pandemic have prompted workers to reconsider how to be most productive and forced companies to reconsider some long-held beliefs. Some organizations are offering a new option: a four-day week.

In recent months, a host of employers, including Japanese electronics maker Panasonic, fintech startup Bolt and the Belgian government, have recommended giving employees the option to work four days but get paid for five. Spain and Scotland are conducting their own trials with shorter weeks. They join a group of firms mostly from the tech sector that were drawn to a four-day format at the outbreak of the pandemic, including crowdfunding site Kickstarter, fashion retailer thredUp and venture capital firm Uncharted.

While most companies have always had a handful of employees working alternate hours, it’s unusual for companies to reconsider the traditional work week for all employees. A 40-hour, five-day workweek has been the norm for white-collar workers since the early 20th century, when union leaders fought back factory bosses demanding six- or even seven-day work schedules and 12- to 14-hour days.

But does a five-day system still make sense?

Companies with a four-day work week option tend to tout their pro-worker policies. Get into the details, though, and “four-day workweek” means different things in different places. At some companies, employees may work four 10-hour days (a practice referred to as “four tens”). At others, employees have Fridays off without having worked overtime on the previous four days. And still others might decide to reduce the overall workload by making the days shorter — so a “four-day week” is really still a five-day week, but workers finish it at 4 p.m. instead of 5 p.m or 6 p.m

Whatever the day, researchers say, one finding stands out: working fewer hours is better for workers and their employers.

The most recent major study on four-day weeks was conducted in Iceland from 2015 to 2019 and covered more than 1% of the population. The organizations participating in the study did not squeeze 40 hours into four days; they shortened the working week to 35 or 36 hours. And different workplaces took different approaches — some took every other Friday off, while others cut the workday by an hour.

Regardless of how the hours were distributed, the change in schedule forced organizations to reconsider the way work was done. They discovered ways to spend less time at work while maintaining (or even increasing) performance, e.g. B. holding shorter meetings or setting clearer priorities. Workers said the experiment left them with less confusion about their roles, more autonomy and more support from colleagues and supervisors. Managers noticed that their employees showed more discipline and focus.

The experiment was very popular. “It’s like a godsend to me,” one manager told the researchers. Employee well-being increased and employees reported having more time for hobbies, friends and sports. Another important benefit was the improved weekends: shorter workweeks meant more errands and chores had to be done during the week, leaving Saturday and Sunday free for leisure and family activities. And men reported more engagement at home, which reduced women’s stress levels. A godsend indeed.

Iceland conducted the trial in part because workers reported working more than 40 hours a week — 44.4 to be precise. That’s similar to the average full-time worker in the US, who works 8.5 hours a day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to Gallup, 45% of Americans work at least 45 hours a week for nine hours a day or more.

We should not be surprised that reducing the working day increases the quality of work done and improves the well-being of employees. Throughout the day we lose energy (and effectiveness). Studies from more than a century prove this. And that’s what companies should consider before aiming for a “four-day workweek” by cramming a 40-hour schedule into four days.

Long working days are exhausting, even if they are followed by long weekends. Many healthcare professionals work “four tens,” and many nurses work “three twelfths.” While nurses will tell you the four-day weekends are great, research shows the long hours are tough. One study found that shifts of 10 hours or more — although often thought to be necessary for continuity of patient care — are associated with burnout and the intention to leave the profession. Mistakes are more likely at the end of a long shift, calling into question whether the practice is truly beneficial to patients.

Another 2021 study that focused on Japanese consultants found that people who worked overtime made more mistakes; shorter days were associated with better outcomes. And a classic study of construction workers in the 1980s, conducted by the Business Roundtable, found that 60-hour weeks could be sustained for about two months before serious delays occurred. The researchers found that projects would have been completed faster if the same crew had only worked 40 hours a week.

Yes, there can be benefits in being tough in an emergency, like a war. But even here we come up against the limits of the human mind and body. A Stanford study of British munitions workers in World War I, published in 2015, found that work output at 70 hours was not significantly different from work output at 56 hours.

There are also long-term healthcare costs of working long hours. Studies of people who work more than 50 hours a week have found that overworkers are more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, depression and alcohol use. While I haven’t seen a study that separates long days from long weeks, you generally don’t get the latter without the former.

The four-day week is a worthy management experiment. But to make it truly successful, companies need to shorten the workweek, not delay it.

More from authors at Bloomberg Opinion:

America’s pension crisis is also a financial crisis: editors

Am I underpaid? Too often younger workers don’t know: Sarah Green Carmichael

Don’t call me on Friday. This is my time to myself: Conor Sen

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a contributing editor at Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was senior editor for ideas and comments at Barron’s and senior editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

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