A recent study done in the U.K. compressed the regular work week into 32 hours across four days—and most of the participating companies plan on keeping it that way now that the trial is over. Alex Stajkovic, an associate professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, weighs in.
Q: There’s been a lot of buzz in the media about this four-day work week study, and the results seem overwhelmingly positive. When it comes down to it, who wouldn’t want to work fewer days for the same amount of money? Perhaps you can shed some light on what seems like a no-brainer, a real win for employees and that elusive work-life balance.
A: This is an interesting topic on many levels. Culturally, here in the U.S., we’re a country obsessed with work. We get a lot of our self-worth—and of course our financial worth—from our work.
I was a guest recently on Wisconsin Public Radio where I talked at length about the U.K. study, so I’ll reiterate some of those thoughts here. I have concerns about the reliability of the study.
First of all, 4 Day Week, the British advocacy group behind the study, likely has a vested interest in promoting the concept of a four-day week, so it raises questions about the independence of the study. It was not peer reviewed, and the data was not made publicly available, at least that I could find. That would be a red flag given the way we operate in the peer-review world of academia.
But for me, the biggest issue with the pilot study is one of measurement. The independent variable of a “meaningful reduction in work time” was undefined: Companies took different approaches during the study in terms of hours and how they were structured. So even though it’s being portrayed as a four-day week of eight hours each day, that’s not what was actually done. Going from five days to four is a 20% reduction, but the study started with 4.86 average days and ended up with 4.52 days on average, which is only a 7% difference. Getting the same performance results with only a 7% reduction in time worked is much easier than with 20% in time drop, as advertised.
Let’s say they had actually done a 20% reduction in time. By squeezing four days into 32 hours, you’re now increasing goal difficulty (because you’ve decreased the time available to complete the original goal) by a lot—a whopping 20% overnight. As someone who studies organizational behavior and motivation, I would argue that even if this is possible, which is debatable, it may not be healthy for employees. If it is possible, what does that say about your employee productivity now? Also, there are some jobs where a four-day week just won’t work, such as mail carriers who have a specific route that probably cannot safely be done any faster. As I asked my radio talk-show host, how would you do it, just talk faster?
There is also a host of other considerations with a four-day week that people are automatically assuming, but cannot be supported or debunked since these were not included in the study. For example, how do we know that the pressure employees are under for the four work days won’t outweigh the three free days they have to “rest it off”? Or maybe one’s household is more stressful than being at work. We learned that during the pandemic many people reported feeling more trapped at home, particularly if they had a difficult, unhappy, or even dangerous home environment.
I think another consideration that puts this debate into perspective is that the 40-hour week was not a mandate imposed on us, designed for our suffering. We forget that back when the government passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1940, children were still in the workforce. Adults were working 12 hour days, six days a week, so the Act was really to help us, not hurt us. As it stands today, some people work more, some less, but the 40-hour week still functions well for many.
What would I say to managers who want to pursue this avenue for their employees? I would suggest starting on a small scale. I would talk to my team first, get their concerns, hear their ideas. And it’s got to be measurable.