Working four days instead of five—with the same pay—leads to improved well-being among employees without damaging the company’s productivity. That’s the recently reported result of a four-day workweek test that ran for six months, from June to December 2022, and involved a total of 61 U.K. companies with a combined workforce of about 2,900 employees.
During the COVID pandemic, many workers experienced increased stress and even burnout, a state of exhaustion that can make it difficult to meet work goals. “It’s a very huge issue,” says independent organizational psychologist and consultant Michael Leiter, who was not involved in the new report. “You see it particularly in health care, where I do a lot of my work. It’s making it much more difficult to hold on to talented people.” He explains that stress in the workplace makes it difficult for companies in health care and many other fields to recruit new hires and keep existing employees. But a greater awareness of burnout and related issues can have a positive effect, Leiter adds. “People are demanding more changes in how the work is organized,” he says.
That demand is what led the independent research organization Autonomy, in conjunction with the advocacy groups 4 Day Week Global and 4 Day Week Campaign and researchers at the University of Cambridge, Boston College and other institutions, to publish a report on what happens when companies reduce the number of days in a workweek. According to surveys of participants, 71 percent of respondents reported lower levels of burnout, and 39 percent reported being less stressed than when they began the test. Companies experienced 65 percent fewer sick and personal days. And the number of resignations dropped by more than half, compared with an earlier six-month period. Despite employees logging fewer work hours, companies’ revenues barely changed during the test period. In fact, they actually increased slightly, by 1.4 percent on average.
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Even before the COVID pandemic, companies tried to enhance employee well-being with interventions such as wellness programs. The new report suggests that a four-day workweek could be a tool for this purpose. “We think this is a far more effective and powerful way to have an impact on employees,” says report co-author Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College. Unlike most wellness benefits or flexible-hour schedules, which are typically options for individuals, the four-day week would be an organization-wide policy. As a result, Schor says, making that change would not harm workers’ career prospects or income.
When it comes to helping workers in distress, “so much of the effort goes into making them feel better rather than actually changing the nature of work,” Leiter says. “The kinds of results that [the researchers are] reporting are more substantial than many of those [wellness] programs. Because again, a lot of what these programs are doing are helping people tolerate the situation that they’re in rather than changing [that situation]. It’s a much more profound thing to do—to change the nature of work—than it is to help people put up with what they’ve got.”
This is not the only test of a shorter workweek. In 2008, for example, Utah started a program to try to save building energy costs by closing state employees’ offices on Fridays, although that program kept employees working for 40-hour weeks and merely redistributed the hours over four days instead of five. Other researchers have studied workweeks or days with fewer hours, although those assessments have often included workers at only one organization. “Prior to 2022, which is when 4 Day Week Global began running trials of companies doing four-day weeks..., to our knowledge, there were no multicompany studies of the four-day week,” Schor says. The organization has conducted multiple studies on the shortened week’s impact in other countries. The recent one in the U.K. was its largest effort thus far, however.
In addition to surveys, the researchers performed in-depth interviews with participants in the new report. From those interviews, it emerged that employees used the additional day off mostly for organization and everyday tasks. This, in turn, allowed them to reserve the weekend primarily for recreation, so they could spend time with their families and hobbies.
The test included companies from a variety of industries, including online retailers, financial services firms, animation studios and a fish-and-chips store. Each company chose how to implement its four-day week—making Friday a day off for everyone or allowing employees to choose any day off, for example. Participants also reduced hours by eliminating time-wasting tasks such as overlong meetings, the surveys found. Ninety-two percent of the companies that took part in the pilot program said they would continue to test the four-day week, and 18 companies decided to keep their reduced working hours permanently.
The test period of six months was relatively short, so it remains unclear whether the favorable impact on well-being will persist in the long term. Employees might become accustomed to the reduced working hours over time, and the lighter workweek would begin to have only a limited effect on stress levels. The researchers plan on conducting a follow-up survey with the participating companies that are maintaining a four-day workweek at the one-year mark in order to see if these positive results continue—and Schor expects they will. “One reason we think they will is that we did a midpoint survey on all of these,” she says. Key outcomes such as stress and burnout “improved in the first three months, and that improvement was maintained. So we do know that in months three to six, we didn’t get regression.”
Leiter would have preferred the team to have used a more established measure to assess burnout. The surveys asked questions related to exhaustion and frustration, he explains, rather than using an assessment like the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which is currently considered the gold standard. “There’s a colloquial idea of burnout, which is that it’s being tired, and it’s being really frustrated with work,” he says. In Leiter’s research, that state would be called “overextended,” he notes. “Burnout has that quality but is also being very cynical and discouraged and depersonalizing things and really losing your sense of accomplishment, which is a much more dark place to be.” Still, he says that the four-day workweek is likely to reduce this more rigorous definition of burnout as well, “because it gives people more control over their life and their relationship with work.”
Companies may be more willing to try out a four-day workweek after seeing new work-from-home policies succeed. “When companies switched to work from home because of the pandemic, this was something they had the technology to do all along and just were really reluctant to let people do it,” Schor says. “And so that really changed employers’ point of view. I think it opened their minds.” Leiter agrees. “I think people were very much into a rut about how work has to be organized,” he says. “What’s come out of the pandemic for a lot of people was reflection, saying, ‘It really doesn’t have to be that way. We can change things drastically—because we just did.’”
A version of this article originally appeared in Spektrum der Wissenschaft and was reproduced with permission.