Could a Shorter Workweek Lead to a More Productive Workforce? The Pros and Cons

2 years ago   •   6 min read

By Zero Machina

Could a shorter work week lead to a more productive workforce?

That's the question that many people have started asking, especially in light of recent studies that suggest overworking can lead to decreased productivity.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. However, it's worth exploring whether a shorter workweek could be right for you and your team.

Read on to learn more about the current research, as well as some essential shorter workweek pros and cons.

What Does the Research Say?

The results of a recent survey conducted by Qualtrics revealed that 92 percent of U.S. employees want a 4-day workweek. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (72 percent) even said they would be willing to work longer hours on their workdays to ensure they get an extra day off.

Those in favor of a shorter workweek listed two primary reasons for wanting an extra day off — better mental health and increased productivity.

79 percent of respondents said that working 4 days per week instead of 5 would improve their mental health, and 82 percent said it would boost their productivity. There is plenty of research that backs up both of these assertions.

Shorter Workweeks and Mental Health

A study published in July of last year announced that employers in Iceland would be moving to a shorter workweek after conducting a series of trials from 2015 to 2019.

The results of the study showed that employees were less stressed and less likely to feel burnt out when they worked fewer hours each week. They also experienced a greater sense of work-life balance, felt happier and more positive, and had more energy to do other things like exercise or spend time with friends.

D. Wennes, a psychotherapist and the clinical director of Associated Psychological Services, explains that Americans could experience similar benefits if they transitioned to a shorter workweek.

Wennes notes that there is an “unhealthy expectation” in the U.S. that “the harder you work, the better you are.” They also suggested that working less could contribute to improved moods, less depression, and less anxiety.

Shorter Workweeks and Productivity

At first, the idea of working 4 days per week instead of 5 might seem detrimental to people’s productivity. The opposite seems to be true, though.

The results of the same research cited in the previous section also showed that a shorter workweek can boost productivity in addition to improving employees’ mental health.

It seems that having an extra day off each week helps people to feel better rested and more energized when they do show up for work. This allows them to get more done during the day and be more engaged in their assignments.

In an interview with the BBC, John Trougakos, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in organizational behavior, explained that a standard 40-hour workweek simply is not efficient.

Trougakos said that the average person’s energy “cannot be sustained for eight hours straight.” This leads to them being “less effective” in their roles.

He also pointed out that most workers compensate for their lack of energy by spending time on social media, texting, or online shopping — none of which are ideal for a person’s or a company’s productivity.

Pros of a Shorter Workweek

In addition to improved mental health and increased productivity, some other pros can result from a shorter workweek, including the following:

Fewer Distractions

In 2018, Andrew Barnes, who owns the New Zealand law firm Perpetual Guardian and authored the book The 4 Day Week, decided to experiment with a 4-day workweek.

To ensure they could get all their work done in a shorter timespan, Barnes’ employees took what some would consider drastic measures. This included putting phones in lockers, soundproofing meeting spaces, and shortening meetings altogether.

All of these efforts to reduce distractions and wasted time worked out, and the team was able to complete the same amount of work while enjoying 3-day weekends. Because they had more time outside of work to handle other responsibilities, they were less distracted by them while they were at work, too.

Better Physical Health

Working 4 days per week instead of 5 doesn’t just improve mental health. It can also improve physical health.

High levels of stress can wreak havoc on a person’s physical well-being. For example, prolonged stress has been linked to the following health conditions:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle pain and tension
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep disturbances

When employees are feeling better physically and mentally, they’re less likely to take days off because they’re sick. This, in turn, also contributes to a company’s productivity levels, improving performance and profitability across the board.

Reduced Carbon Footprint

A shorter workweek can benefit the environment as well.

On the weekend, the average American employee drives 17 percent fewer miles than they do on weekdays. Based on this information, experts estimate that working 4 days per week could reduce carbon emissions in the United States by 45 million metric tons — that’s more than the total combined emissions for Oregon and Vermont.

For companies that are looking to reduce their carbon footprint and support the environment, switching to a 4-day workweek could make a big difference.

Increased Equality

Reducing the workweek from 5 days to 4 may also have a positive impact on the gender pay gap in the United States. On average, women currently earn 84 percent of what their male counterparts earn.

Research conducted in the UK — which has a pay gap issue of its own — by the Government Equalities Office shows that approximately 2 million British people are not employed because of childcare responsibilities — and 89 percent of them are women.

Transitioning to a 4-day workweek could contribute to a more equal workplace. It might be easier for employees — including female employees — to make arrangements for childcare and juggle work commitments when they only have to work 4 days instead of 5.

Better Recruitment and Retention

Finally, a shorter workweek can lead to better employer recruitment and improved employee retention rates.

Flexibility is a top priority for many job seekers in the United States. Allowing workers to show up 4 days per week instead of 5 could make a business more appealing than its competitors.

Furthermore, if employees are feeling happier, more productive, less stressed, and healthier working at a company that lets them work 4 days per week, they’re going to be more inclined to stick around long-term. This is certainly worth considering for companies that are looking to improve employee retention now and in the future.

Cons of a Shorter Workweek

Before an employer decides to switch their team to a 4-day workweek, they deserve to know the pros and the cons. Here are a few potential downsides to keep in mind:

Doesn’t Work for All Industries

Despite the benefits a shorter workweek provides, not all industries can easily allow employees to work 4 days per week instead of 5.

Teachers, for example, would only be able to work 4 days per week if the entire school system changed to allow students to also experience a 4-day week. That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Added Costs from Overtime Pay

Many companies that switch to a 4-day workweek pay employees overtime if they work beyond the allotted 4 days. This could get expensive at companies where employees choose to work longer than 4 days — or at companies where employees have to work longer than 4 days to get everything done.

Potential Customer Frustration

In 2007, Utah’s state employees had their workweek redefined, with extended hours Monday through Thursday, eliminating Fridays altogether.

The state saved a lot of money with this approach and saw some significant environmental benefits. However, they ultimately reverted to a 5-day week because customers complained about not being able to access government services on Fridays.

Businesses can work around these issues with the help of tools like chatbots and AI-powered websites (which weren’t around in 2007). However, there may still be some growing pains as customers get used to the new schedule.

Team Management/Scheduling Struggles

Initially, teams may struggle to stay connected when employees switch to a 4-day workweek. This is especially true if employees are also allowed to choose which 4 days they work or when they come into the office.

With the help of scheduling apps and project management software, though, it’s easier for teams to adjust to working different schedules and ensure everything gets done correctly and on time.

Is a Shorter Workweek Right for You?

After reading through the shorter workweek pros and cons listed above, what do you think about permanently taking Fridays off? Are you intrigued by the idea of a 4-day workweek?

If you’re concerned about staying connected with your team while transitioning to a shorter workweek, Undock can help you make time no matter where you are or when you’re working.

With the ability to schedule wherever you type, you can conveniently get suggestions for meeting times directly in your email and mobile apps. Sign up today to see how Undock can revolutionize your scheduling process.

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