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Two road signs. One points to a five-day workweek and the other to a four-day workweek.

The Problem with the Four-day Workweek

Recent news headlines have brought attention to the research conducted in Iceland detailing “transformative positive effects” of a shorter work week for organizations and employees. 

The Icelandic study found that reducing the work week from 40 to 35-36 hours per week did not decrease productivity or service provision while increasing wellbeing for some and decreasing stress overall in Icelandic Government workplaces.  Based on this finding, journalists have gone as far as to suggest that the “five-day day workweek is dead,” according to a recent article in Vox.

In reality, the reduced work week is a model that is antithetical to the American workplace.  A report produced by the People’s Policy Project in 2019 found that Americans work more hours per year than any other peer nation.  Americans, in fact, are global outliers in that we have not increased our hours spent on leisure even as national productivity (output per unit of labor) has increased–a fact that suggests even though we could do so, we don’t want to or cannot afford to work less.  Certainly, this effect is compounded by country-level factors including poor support for working parents, lack of funds or support to retire, and lack of sick leave and vacation days.

In part due to pandemic working arrangements, American companies and employees are as far away from a four-day work week than they have ever been.  As work patterns shifted during the pandemic, many white-collar workers brought their work home, where it never left and allowed the scales of work-life balance to tip exponentially in the direction of work.  While working from home has advantages, the major drawback is that work becomes fused with outside-of-work activities such that there are no longer any boundaries.  For workers with children, this was inevitable, because in order to remain productive while balancing new pandemic-related childcare demands, the two worlds were forced to meet.  Many parents found workable solutions where survival was possible, at the expense of self-care.  A report headed by Oxfam suggested that we gave up sleep, hobbies, and quality time with a partner to manage the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.    

The research in Iceland suggests that working fewer hours is possible by shortening meetings, shortening breaks, performing personal errands outside of the workday, leaving when there is no work (for example., all the children in a daycare have gone home) and cutting out unnecessary tasks.  Taken as a whole, work hours were not necessarily reduced, they were merely reorganized to allow employees more significant allotments of free time. 

Of course, the process of increasing efficiency is a good exercise for any organization and can be combined with the notion of flex time for employees so that they can maximize their personal productivity.  The key is flexibility in how work is completed.  Employees who have more independence and feel more control over their day-to-day workflow feel more satisfied and more productive.

These concepts – flexibility, autonomy, customized workdays — can be applied more easily to the American workplace.  Instead of “reducing hours,” can organizations allow employees the flexibility to determine how they work best? Further, how can organizations encourage work-life balance and promote the mental and physical health of employees?  How can we reorganize to allow for employees to disconnect from technology-enabled work tasks (for example, email) when they are not at work? 

A small number of organizations serve as exemplars in this regard, with mandated paid time off and facilities on site that allow for easier work-life balance.  Some companies, for example, offer on-site fitness centers, healthy eating options, on-site daycare services, and/or healthcare as part of the work location.  Others rely on family-friendly policies including flextime and paid family and sick leave. 

In order to accomplish this balance in the US, American companies will need to fundamentally shift their view of what productive work means.  It took a pandemic and a study of 2,500 employees in Iceland to enable us to see this as a truly feasible option. 

By Dr. Barbara Ritter
Dean of the Davis College of Business, Jacksonville University

This column originally ran in the The Florida Times-Union. For more information about Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business, please visit www.ju.edu/dcob/.