🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more
With a four-day workweek, you might have more time for hobbies or leisure activities. STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Could a 4-day workweek become the norm?

Janet Nguyen Feb 23, 2023
With a four-day workweek, you might have more time for hobbies or leisure activities. STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

A U.K.-based pilot program studying the effects of a four-day workweek found out that time is indeed more valuable than money.  

The program, which took place from June to December of last year, involved about 2,900 employees at 61 companies. Fifteen percent of employee participants said they would not accept any amount of money to go back to the conventional five-day working week, according to results from the program that were released this week. 

Companies could participate if they continued paying employees at the same level as a normal workweek and gave them a “meaningful” reduction in work hours. The project was run by the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global in collaboration with the 4 Day Week Campaign, the research organization Autonomy, and researchers from Boston College and Cambridge University. 

Other findings by the end of the trial: 

  • 39% of participants were “less stressed”
  • 57% decrease in the number of staff leaving
  • 60%  found it easier to balance caretaking responsibilities
  • 62% found it easier to balance their work and social lives

Overall, the trial’s findings show that a shortened workweek pays off — for both the workers’ and a company’s bottom line. Employees reported greater satisfaction with different areas of their lives, with company revenue staying constant.

Forty-four percent of employees reported being more satisfied with their household finances. “You have no idea what this will mean to my family – the amount of money we will be able to save on child care,” said one employee. 

Forty-five percent were more satisfied with their relationships, and 73% more satisfied “with the amount of time they have to do the things they like doing.”

Seventy-one percent said they “had reduced levels of burnout.”

“It’s been a huge success, I think maybe beyond what I could have anticipated given how challenging the U.K. economy has been,” said Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College and the trial’s lead researcher. 

Like the U.S., the U.K. has been dealing with employee resignations, burnout, and hiring difficulties, Schor said. Having a four-day workweek gives companies a competitive advantage, she explained. 

“Many of these companies experienced better productivity because they reorganized work. They got rid of dysfunctional practices. They spent two months figuring out what they needed to do to make the trial work,” Schor said. 

Revenue “stayed broadly the same” throughout the six-month trial period, and actually increased by 35% on average when you compare it to similar periods from past years. 

Fifty-six of the companies, or about 92%, will stick with the four-day workweek after the program, with 18 of them saying they will actually make the change permanent. 

How exactly does the 4-day workweek work? 

The companies tried experimenting with different approaches, which they could do as long as employers did not reduce pay. 

Some simply gave employees an extra day off, whether that was a Friday or a Monday. Others had a “staggered” approach where they gave some team members Mondays off and the other team members Fridays off. 

Some just made sure that total working time averaged out to 32 hours a week. One example the study gave is a restaurant that had “longer opening times in summer compensated by shorter opening times in winter.” 

As for which method works the best, Schor said this is a question she’s starting to analyze. 

“My hunch is that the Friday off is the best way to go. Two reasons: one is the three-day weekend is really important to people,” Schor said. 

She said that the qualitative data that’s been collected shows that employees like having those three days off in a row. 

“They need three days. Two days are not enough to get ready to get back into the workplace,” she said. 

And the second reason is that Friday “is becoming a lower productivity day anyway,” Schor noted. 

“Companies are already starting to experiment with every other Friday off, Fridays off in the summer, early Friday closings in the summer [and] no meetings on Friday,” she explained. 

Could the U.S. ever have a 4-day workweek? 

Programs in other countries that have experimented with four-day workweeks, such as Iceland and New Zealand, have also found success, with employees reporting a greater work-life balance. 

In the U.S., some lawmakers are calling for a shortened workweek. 

“With exploding technology and increased worker productivity, it’s time to move toward a four-day work week with no loss of pay. Workers must benefit from technology, not just corporate CEOs,” tweeted Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday. 

America, though, has a reputation for working excessively, with many employees failing to use their vacation days. 

Some jobs in particular have high expectations for working long hours, said Krista Lynn Minnotte, a sociology professor at the University of North Dakota. 

Lawyers, doctors and high-level managers tend to work in environments where you’re expected to work long hours to prove how dedicated you are to the workplace, she said. 

“We call that the ideal worker norm. The ideal worker norm is very embedded in some workplaces where if you want a raise, if you want to get ahead, then you need to be there, in person, working long hours,” Minnotte explained. “And not only that, but you should take your work home with you. And you should be available for clients to answer emails, to answer telephone calls on your so-called off hours.”

To avoid burnout, which got worse for many employees during the pandemic, some workers have been setting greater boundaries at work. This phenomenon has given rise to a term known as “quiet quitting,” which is not so much “quitting” as it is workers simply doing what the job is supposed to require of them and not taking on extra tasks. 

A four-day workweek is possible here, with some institutions and businesses experimenting with the idea. Marketplace reported that in Texas, there are school districts offering four-day workweeks to help with teacher recruitment and retention. Athens Independent School District, which launched a Monday-through-Thursday school week as part of a 3-year pilot program, found that it was able to attract teachers with more experience. 

“We know a four-day work week can work for many companies in the U.S.,” said Schor, who has also been working on four-day workweek trials here. “I think the barriers to it spreading in the U.S. are largely a little bit cultural, and maybe inertial, which is that a lot of U.S. employers don’t necessarily think it could work, although more and more are getting interested.”

Schor said a series of factors contribute to our culture of overwork in the U.S.. but the big one she would point to is the way pay and benefits are structured in the U.S.

“We have large numbers of people on salaries rather than hourly,” Schor said. “We have health care benefits that are paid by the firm, so they make each additional hire more expensive.” 

That, she explained, can lead employers to increase an employee’s hours rather than hiring additional workers. 

Schor said we’d be able to move away from our predisposition toward long working hours by getting health care out of our employment system — whether that’s through Medicare For All or some other type of arrangement. 

There is no rule in the U.S. decreeing that a 40-hour, 5-day workweek is the standard way for a company to operate.

The 40-hour workweek standard was set to that amount after a 1940 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act required overtime pay for hours worked above that amount. 

In the early 20th century, longer workweeks were the norm. “It wasn’t until 1919 that close to half of American workers had a 48-hour workweek; in 1915, only one-eighth of workers had a workweek capped at 48 hours,” according to the Labor Department. 

So for example, before the 1930s, factory workers in Chicago might have worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, while steel workers had 12-hour days, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. 

The U.S. Senate passed a bill to reduce work schedules to 30 hours a week in 1933, but business leaders opposed it. Ninety years later, we might be headed in that direction.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.