The decade ahead will likely be known for innovations we haven’t even imagined yet. In the workplace, it may be known for the rise of a new way of scheduling employees: the 4-day workweek.
As overwork has become a chronic issue, entire countries have started piloting and testing shorter workweeks. Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland ran a series of trials across industries to study the impact of a 4-day workweek. The trials involved more than 2,500 workers—more than 1% of the country’s workforce—who moved from working 40 hours a week to a 35- or 36-hour week without a reduction in pay. The pilot participants worked in a diverse array of workplaces, including offices, preschools, and hospitals.
The results have been called “transformative” and “ground-breaking evidence for the efficacy of working time reduction.”
Across the trials, productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces. Employees reported lower levels of stress and burnout and increases in their overall health and work/life balance. The positive shifts in health and mindset weren’t just work-affiliated, though. Workers also reported less stress at home and wider social well-being. They described having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies, run errands, exercise, and tend to household chores. In the years following this landmark pilot, trade unions and employers in Iceland worked together to renegotiate working patterns at companies and public service organizations. Now, 86% of Iceland’s workforce either have moved to a shorter workweek for the same pay or will gain the right to do so.
Since Iceland’s project, many more countries have started exploring reductions in labor time across their workforce. The Spanish government agreed to a 32-hour workweek over 3 years for its employees without cutting workers’ pay. The prime minister of Finland is in favor of shortening the amount of time people work, suggesting companies adopt a flexible 6-hour day and a 4-day workweek. Scotland, Japan, and Belgium have all announced plans to explore a reduced workweek. In Germany, which already has one of the shortest workweeks in Europe at an average of 34.5 hours a week, trade unions are calling for further reductions to enhance personnel retention. And in Denmark, which, according to the World Happiness Report, consistently ranks among the top three happiest countries on earth, people rarely put in more than 37 hours a week, often leaving the office by 4 or 5 p.m.
Employers large and small have been experimenting with condensed work schedules for years, but post-pandemic, such initiatives are enjoying more testing and implementation than ever. InDebted, a debt collection agency, moved to a 32-hour, 4-day workweek. It started with a pilot program in select teams, and after it launched, the company received more applicants for open positions in 45 days than in the previous 4 months. Overall, the company’s average number of applicants has increased 283%. Inside its workforce, 98% of employees indicated the new 4-day workweek positively impacts their well-being. The 4-day workweek has also been embraced by Bolt, an e-commerce developer. Since its implementation, 84% of employees said they’ve been more productive, 86% have been more efficient with their time, and 84% report an improvement in their work/life balance. Now, the CEO says he “couldn’t imagine running a company any other way.”
The rise of the 4-day workweek hasn’t been limited to tech companies or employers with scores of remote workers.
Oklahoma LED offers their crews a four-day workweek. Hospitals and other health-care entities have been offering four-day options to nurses and other staff for years. According to Newsweek, Shake Shack, Unilever, and the cities of Boulder, Colorado, and Morgantown, West Virginia, are all currently testing or offering a four-day workweek for employees. Shorter workweeks are popping up in all kinds of industries. “Companies we have helped to make the transition to a four-day week have reported it has significantly expanded their pool of potential recruitment candidates,” said Joe O’Connor, Global Pilot Program Manager at 4 Day Week Global, which is running tests of four-day workweeks around the world.
Happiness expert Dan Buettner has reviewed research on more than 20 million people worldwide and has led extensive research in the world’s happiest countries. He says, “When it comes to your work, try to work part-time, thirty to thirty-five hours a week.” He also finds that 6 weeks of vacation per year is the optimal amount for happiness. If that isn’t possible, he says, employees should at least get to use all of their allotted vacation time and negotiate for more. If the idea of offering your employees 30-hour workweeks and 6 weeks of vacation seems out of reach, then operate on the general rule that less is more. A more reachable goal could be to get slightly below 40 hours per week. Research shows that even shaving an hour or 2 off the standard 40-hour workweek can have huge benefits, both at work and at home. Less than 10% of workers are able to achieve that schedule.
But a manageable workload isn’t just about sticking to a 40-hour workweek or, if possible, implementing a shorter one. It also requires us to manage the workload employees carry during their allotted work time.
This piece is adapted from Joe Mull’s forthcoming book Employalty: How to Ignite Commitment and Keep Top Talent in the New Age of Work.
Joe Mull is an HR veteran with nearly 20 years of experience. He is the author of three books, including the forthcoming Employalty: How to Ignite Commitment and Keep Top Talent in the New Age of Work. He is also host of the popular Boss Better Now podcast and founder of the BossBetter Leadership Academy, as well as a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP). He has also been featured on Good Morning America and in Forbes and Newsweek.