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Can a Four-Day Workweek Work? Two BC Professors Think So.

When people imagine what the future of work will look like, artificial intelligence and automation often come to mind.

But the most revolutionary transformation for workers might lie in switching to a shorter, four-day workweek, two BC professors say.

“You’re going to be saving a lot of time with AI, and what’s going to happen to that time, are you going to just make people work more?” said Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology.

Schor, whose academic background is in economics, alongside her colleague Wen Fan, an associate professor of sociology, conducted a study testing the four-day workweek on U.S. and European companies while documenting how the change affected productivity and well-being among employees.

The study was composed of companies both big and small across a variety of industries, including nonprofit organizations and local governments. 

“People Are Really Struggling”

The dominant mindset in the United States has long measured productivity in terms of inputs—the number of hours people work, according to Fan.

But hours worked does not tell the full story, Schor and Fan said. Since 1950, the average American’s productivity has increased by 400 percent, yet they still log an average of 41.9 hours per week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

“I think it’s natural that if you produce the same output, then why should companies care how many hours they are working?” Fan said. “If you get the same thing done, I just don’t think it matters that much how you get those things done, whether you spend 20 or 40 hours.”

Work hours are also linked to a variety of negative health outcomes including stress, burnout, fatigue, and sleep deprivation, the study found. Overworking has also been shown to strain people’s relationships with their family and friends, Schor added.

“People are really struggling,” Schor said. “Especially in the United States, work hours are too long. It’s impairing families. It’s impairing people’s ability to get involved in civic life and politics.”

The lack of work-life balance in people’s lives leaves little time for reflection and intention—both Jesuit ideals rooted in BC’s mission, she noted.

“A Win-Win” for Employees and Businesses  

After just a few months with a shorter workweek, measures of employee well-being increased across the board, the study found

“I think if there is anything that surprises me, it’s how consistent the findings are,” Fan said.

Of the approximately 2,900 employees who participated in the U.K. study, 39% said they were less stressed, and 71% had reduced levels of burnout. Over half of employees said they found it easier to balance work with their family and social commitments. Issues related to anxiety, fatigue, and sleep also decreased.

While the benefits to workers may seem clear, Schor and Fan said they were surprised to learn that companies were also very pleased with the four-day model. 

“I think everyone is surprised at how great it has been for the companies,” Schor said. “They report really high satisfaction with it.”

Employers saw higher employee retention, satisfaction, and attendance.

“They see improved productivity, they see reduced turnovers and voluntary exits, and their sick and personal days also are reduced,” Fan said. “I think it’s just a win-win for both employees and organizations.”

While it is difficult to empirically measure productivity, Schor and Fan said that companies rated their productivity as a 7.5 out of 10—a relatively higher result than either expected.

“They report people being really productive—sometimes more productive—but in general, they’re not reporting a decline in productivity,” Schor said.

The uptick in productivity can be attributed to a more efficient structuring of employees’ time, as meetings and other time-consuming distractions are phased out, they said.

“So if we can get rid of these low priority or low productivity tasks, then it is achievable for organizations to deliver the same output even when they only work four days a week,” Fan said.

Of the 61 companies that participated in the trial, over 90% said they intend to continue the four-day workweek model, according to Schor.

“There are significant benefits in what you get from your staff when you do it because it’s worth so much to them—they become more loyal, they are less likely to leave, and they sort of work smarter,” Schor said.

Making the Four-Day Workweek a Reality

To many workers, a four-day workweek once seemed like an unrealistic fantasy—that is until the the pandemic ushered in a new era of work-life balance.

“I think that the common sense on this has changed, which is that when you say something about the four-day week to people, they’re like, ‘Yeah, why don’t I have that,’” Schor said. “Because there is a sense that it’s possible now.”

Slowly but surely, the movement is gaining traction with workers, labor leaders, and politicians alike, Schor said. 

Legislatures in states such as Maryland and Massachusetts are exploring the possibility of a four-day workweek, and last month, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours without reducing workers’ pay.

Schor has become a prominent voice in the four-day workweek movement, testifying before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions last month

“Given current robust rates of U.S. productivity growth, the promise of further increases as a result of Artificial Intelligence, and the fact that over the last 85 years, the statutory workweek has been unchanged, I support the legislative effort to enact a 32-hour workweek,” Schor said in her testimony.

Her TedTalk, “The Case for a 4-Day Workweek,” has been viewed more than two million times, and her book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure is a national bestseller.

“I care about this issue a lot, which is why I’m devoting so much time to it,” Schor said. 

By offering companies tax breaks or other incentives, the government could help catalyze the transition toward a four-day workweek on a national scale, according to Schor and Fan.

“A more reasonable starting point is for some external forces to make change happen,” Fan said. “If there are government policies that could be implemented, for example, to give organizations incentive to participate in a four-day workweek, then that would help tremendously.”

Companies that pivot to the model early on are poised to reap significant benefits, Schor said.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for being in the first wave here—you get a lot of benefits that once it becomes normative, if you haven’t done it, you suffer, you don’t necessarily get the benefits of being ahead,” Schor said. 

Fan said, in her experience, younger generations put a higher premium on flexible work culture and work-life balance—a preference that could bolster support for a four-day workweek in coming decades.

“If there is sufficient demand from workers—especially younger workers—that might help to force employers to see the value of having a flexible culture,” Fan said. “If they want to attract workers or to retain their current workers, they have to do something to make the workplace a more desirable place to work.”

Despite the increased support for a four-day workweek, obstacles still remain. Because companies provide workers with health insurance, Schor said they have an incentive to hire fewer workers to work longer hours.

“Although it seems to be completely disconnected from work time, the way we finance health insurance turns out to have had a profound impact on working hours in the US and it’s one of the reasons we have such long working hours compared to other countries,” Schor said.

April 21, 2024