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Is a Four-Day Work Week Realistic?

Studies have found that four-day work weeks offer a variety of benefits to employees and employers. But not everyone is in favor of a shorter work week, especially amid a tight labor market and high inflation.

Work four days and have a three-day weekend every week? When do we start?

A new survey by shows the burgeoning movement for a four-day workweek is gaining steam. The one-sided results showed 8 in 10 full-time workers want a four-day workweek instead of the usual five-day week.

The top reasons workers cite for favoring a four-day workweek in the survey, as well as others, are it would improve work-life balance and physical and mental health. It also helped the environment, supporters claimed, by taking some commuting traffic off the streets. Also, 21 percent would take a pay cut in exchange for a four-day work week.

The idea of a shorter work week isn't new. Some businesses already employ a four-day workweek, but as a widespread business practice, it hasn't caught on. The now defunct Midwest-born New Party pushed it back in the 1990s, saying at the time that shorter workweeks would allow people to pursue the arts and leisure to bring balance to their lives.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, introduced a bill for a four-day workweek on March 14.

"Today, American workers are over 400 percent more productive than in the 1940s," he said when introducing the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act. "And yet millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages than they were decades ago."

A supporter of four-day workweeks, Rep. Mark Takano, D- California, has been quoted as saying the change will give Americans more time "to live, play and enjoy life more fully outside of work."

The nonprofit 4-Day Week Global, which has been campaigning on this issue since 2019, said it onboarded nearly 200 companies in the past year.

According to Forbes, a U.K. study found after six months of four-day work weeks, 71 percent of workers felt less burnout, company income increased by 1.4 percent on average, and there was a dramatic decrease in employee quitting and a significant reduction in sick days.

Re-Thinking Productivity

But how would a four-day workweek be structured? Some companies have already eyed four 10-hour days, with a three-day weekend built in.

Luke Slupesky, branch director of employment staffing agency Robert Half Recruiters & Employment Agency on Americas Parkway, said he's actually had an employer request for a four-day worker.

"Literally, about a week and a half, two weeks ago, I had the first company that's asked me to look for somebody for four 10s," Slupesky said. That's four, 10-hour days.

A shift like that, Slupesky said, would work for some, but not all.

"I see the pros of it, for sure," he said. "But I do have a few cons. One would be burnout. I think it sounds good when you get Friday, Saturday and Sunday off. But when you talk about a 10-hour day and you add in a lunch, now we're talking about an 11-hour day and that's a lot of work to be condensed into a short workweek."

But people who want that would push the envelope a bit.

"I think workers may feel compelled to put in the extra hours just so they can have those days off, and that's going to cause burnout over time," Slupesky said.

The movement for four-day workweeks is trying to get around that by asking for four, 8-hour days. That would mean 32 hours rather than the typical 40 per week. And that's what the Sanders bill in Congress is pushing.

The Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act would:

  • Reduce the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours over four years by lowering the maximum hours threshold for overtime compensation for non-exempt employees.
  • Require overtime pay at time and a half for workdays longer than eight hours, and overtime pay at double a worker's regular pay for workdays longer than 12 hours.
  • Protect workers' pay and benefits to ensure that a reduction in the workweek does not cause a loss in pay.

The bill, which hasn't advanced in Congress, is endorsed by unions, including the AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers.

Federal law has previously interceded to reduce the workweek. In 1940, the Fair Labor Standards Act dropped the standard pre-overtime hours from 44 to 40. That's the same law that mandated standards for minimum wages and time-and-a-half pay for overtime for the hours worked beyond 40.

The AFL-CIO Commission on the Future of Work and Unions, formed in 2017, has advocated for a four-day workweek as a way to reduce work hours, not just gain another day off. To keep up production while assigning full-time workers to fewer hours, the AFL-CIO commission recommended giving part-time workers and on-call workers more scheduling. The aim, the commission said, was to bargain or legislate more worker control over scheduling and a leisure dividend without any reduction in pay for workers.

Workers in the recent ResumeBuilder survey agree. They say they can get their work done in 32 hours, and they don't need to languish for 40.

At the same time, advocates of four-day workweeks want to guard against a loss of pay for workers, though some surveyed won't mind giving up some pay in exchange for a four-day workweek. So, pay and cost have the potential to become sticking points.

Julia Toothacre, a career strategist for ResumeBuilder, recommends that companies looking to switch focus on scheduling.

"One of the main challenges companies need to consider when switching to a four-day workweek is scheduling," Toothacre said in an email. "In many cases, coverage needs to be available for customers or partners, which could be a challenge if the whole company is on the same four-day schedule. If it's a varied schedule, then building utilities might increase as people are in the office longer hours and possibly more days to spread out the coverage."

Slupesky pointed out that the four-day week could raise other issues.

"There's the issue of decreased collaboration and productivity," he said. "When there's less days at work there's less opportunities to collaborate and brainstorm ... and let's say something happens on a Friday, and no one's in the office, you miss out on those opportunities, especially when other companies, dare I say most companies, are open five days a week. So you're actually potentially missing out on business."

Toothacre said productivity is already a problem.

"There is a lot of wasted time during the workweek when people are in-office," she said. "Our survey showed that people believe they can get their work done in less hours. I believe this is because they are motivated and will likely be more focused and intentional with their time because they know they are getting time back in their lives. Low productivity has more to do with expectations, accountability and management than it does with the employee's abilities."

Beyond Anecdotes and Surveys

A serious concern for those interested in a serious push for shorter workweeks is reliable studies.

That's a concern for Anderson School of Management economics professor Subramanian Iyer, who points out that serious number crunching is missing from this long-debated issue.

Most of what the public sees, he said, is usually based on anecdotal case studies conducted for a short span of time, one company here, one company there, and the evidence is mostly survey-based — surveys where people give their opinions.

"We always talk about biases and errors in statistics and one of the biases we always try to overcome is the small sample bias, making a decision based on a few data points ..., and this is something we always teach our students — don't decide based on one data point. Make sure that you analyze sufficient data points to make a decision," Iyer said.

Iyer said a shorter workweek is not a new concept by any means. A lot of research was done in the 1970s on the issue, but after a few years the movement kind of became quiet. He said we're seeing a lot of interest and advocacy for the four-day workweek after COVID-19 because, during the pandemic, work-from-home and flexible work plans were used.

Iyer said the bottom line is, unfortunately, the academic literature which lends a lot of theoretical and empirical proof to these kinds of questions, whether this really is a beneficial thing or not, has not been cited or highlighted enough (in the news). Worse, the academic literature from the 1970s onward, if taken as a whole, the results are mostly inconclusive. And there have been bad things cited in some of the academic literature.

Unemployment and Other Negatives

For example, Iyer said, companies that switch to four-day workweeks reported intense monitoring of workers. Also, scheduling became a problem, leaving the employer to coordinate a new workflow.

As for four-day workweeks saving the planet by reducing driving, academic studies have shown ambiguous results when it comes to impact on the planet, Iyer said. But most importantly is the issue of unemployment, Iyer said.

"Currently in the United States we have a period of low unemployment," he said. "A four-day workweek would mean employers have to hire more workers because ... some people will ask for a flexible worktime but during a period of low unemployment, say if the Bernie Sanders law passes and this becomes the norm, then employers would have to hire more workers to fill in the workflow and scheduling. So, because the labor market is so tight, and wage inflation is going up, employers might not find enough workers to fill these positions that might be needed to switch to a four-day workweek.

"That, in my opinion, is a more serious problem which most people are overlooking because, 'Where are you going find the workers?'" he said.

If you can't find them, Iyer said, then you have to pay more to get those workers, so that's going to complicate things. Plus, training new workers takes time, he said.

Still, Slupesky, of Robert Half job agency, said he is ready to accommodate any job placement request. A shift to four days, he points out, may require a new leadership mindset, with the key being to focus on quality and efficiency rather than merely the number of hours worked.

"I would encourage employers to investigate it and to try it cautiously," Slupesky said. "Maybe try for a month, and see what happens. There's no golden standard, there's not going to be one size fits all. I think it'll be different industry to industry, company to company ... but I think there could be some success found in it."

As inviting as it sounds, even as a path to happier workers, Slupesky has this caution: "I would make sure that that company does as much research as possible, as in where else has someone in my industry tried this and how did it go."

(c)2024 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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