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In Practice

Is a 4-Day Workweek the Cure for Burnout?

If you feel exhausted, you’re not alone: According to Mercer’s 2022 Global Talent Trends Study, 81% of employees are worried about burning out this year. The pandemic accelerated work fatigue, blurring the line between career and personal, and in some industries, making work more intense. The pandemic also ushered in flexible-working, which is now calling into question just how effective and sustainable our work practices are.

The five-day workweek emerged in 1908, when a New England spinning mill gave workers Saturday and Sunday off so that Jewish workers could observe the Sabbath. But it was automobile magnate Henry Ford who brought a reduced workweek into the mainstream in 1926, heralding the benefits of increased productivity stemming from increased downtime. The question now is whether a further reduction in working days could have a similar impact on work output and the economy. Is the four-day workweek an answer to employee exhaustion and waning productivity? Our research shows that 63% of companies are open to considering a four-day workweek, with 30% implementing it in at least one location or business unit last year.

But are flexible arrangements enough, or does addressing energy levels and productivity require a fresh look at how we schedule our work and non-work time?

4-Day Workweek Trials Across the World

The 4 Day Week Global organization is leading the charge with the world’s largest trial. Over six months in 2022, more than 3,000 workers in 70 U.K.-based firms across various industries will take a full day off every week. Participating employers are paying 100% of salaries for 80% of the work.

By creating what it views as a more sustainable work environment, the 4 Day Week pilot expects to see measurable improvement in business productivity and in employees’ mental and physical health. The location for this experiment makes sense: Our research shows that employees in the UK reported the lowest energy levels out of the 16 participating countries (significantly lower than prior years).

Other countries are running similar pilot programs. In Belgium, employees are legally able to opt for a four-day workweek, covering the same total hours with longer days. A successful four-day workweek trial in Iceland resulted in widespread adoption of reduced hours, with most employees taking one to three hours off each week. France and Italy are considering legislation to codify additional flex rights, while the Netherlands passed legislation granting remote working flexibility as a legal right, and the U.K. has an active consultation process happening around flexibility more broadly. The United Arab Emirates has already adopted a 4.5-day workweek, kicking off the weekend on Friday afternoon. 

One study by Henley Business School reports that two-thirds of business leaders who engaged in a four-day workweek witnessed improvements in productivity, while their employees felt less stressed (70%), happier (78%) and took less time off (62%). 

Could a 4-Day Workweek Level the Playing Field?

According to the International Monetary Fund, the answer is yes. Four-day arrangements are especially good options for the 100 million workers globally who cannot perform their jobs remotely. As we all experiment with flexible schedules, it has become even more clear that it is easier to design flexibility for knowledge workers than it is for health care providers, construction workers and retail staff, to name a few jobs considered “essential” and tied to location. It will not surprise you to learn that employees in these three industries are thriving less than their peers this year.

Despite two-thirds of organizations saying their workers have at least partially returned to onsite work, less than half are complying with established hybrid working arrangements.

As we embark on these pilots, it is important to think inclusively to ensure we design and schedule work that delivers better outcomes for all. And it is worth asking — for care workers and those in services industries, is time off really the best route to improving well-being and tackling the health and wealth protection gap? Or is raising wages a more impactful solution?

How Flexibility Contributes to ESG Efforts

Mercer’s research shows that employees are demanding more control over when and how they work. Here’s a stat that speaks volumes: One in three employees would give up a pay increase this year in return for a fully flexible or compressed workweek. With cost of living concerns and an uncertain economic outlook, offering time off could be one way for employers to tackle wage inflation. It can also serve as a powerful retention driver, as our research shows that flexibility is the number two reason why employees have stayed with their company (just after job security).

On the talent attraction side, Mercer research shows that workers gravitate to companies with a strong brand and to those that take responsibility for ESG and sustainability. Four-day workweeks can have broader sustainability implications beyond delivering on a company’s social responsibility and worker health agenda. For example, there is potential environmental upside by cutting down a company’s days of operation and/or reducing employees’ commutes.

There are other social benefits, too, such as leveling the gender playing field by allowing more time for domestic and familial duties (cited as key to increasing female participation in the workplace). Both the societal value of reduced working hours and the economic impact will reveal themselves as these experiments play out. 

Are We Addressing the Right Issue?

With a tight talent market and the rising cost of living, are work schedules where we should be focusing our efforts? We have already established that employees value flexibility and control over their time. But it could be that poor work design and lackluster execution of new work models are causing people to want more time away from work to offset intolerable workloads, toxic work environments and poor work habits. Might we be better served addressing these issues head-on?

Another consideration is the wider role that work plays in our society today, in terms of bringing structure to our lives and synchronicity in work/play time. Today, preparing for work, going to work, supporting workers and their health, nutrition, commuting needs, etc. is an industry around which society is arranged. 

If the move to a four-day workweek truly means we are working smarter, absorbing unproductive time, how would the additional time away from work be spent, and what benefit might that bring to society as a whole? Organizations and governments have a responsibility for ensuring the continued employability of their populations — could additional leisure time help or hinder these efforts? We see crime rates go up when employment drops, and societal rifts widen when more people are below the poverty line.

But is enough research being done on the impact of shorter workweeks on entrepreneurialism, innovation and civic engagement? Both government and corporate leaders are discussing these wider questions with pandemic lessons in mind. For example, how much can mental health issues in Gen Z be attributed to a lack of structure, more time at home, and less social connection during COVID? As we consider enterprise-wide or country-wide shifts in our work/life patterns, it is important to ensure we do not erode the fundamental pillars of society.

The Four-Day Workweek: Just One Lever in Your Toolkit

In itself, shortening the workweek will not combat employee fatigue, nor is it a silver bullet for increasing engagement, boosting productivity, stimulating learning and retaining top talent. But it can help.

Wherever you land on the merits of shortened workweeks, it’s clear that recent “return to workplace” efforts are not giving us the insights we need. Despite two-thirds of organizations saying their workers have at least partially returned to onsite work, less than half are complying with established hybrid working arrangements. There is a risk that these return-to-work practices become our future of work practices. Instead, companies can take advantage of this time to stop and rethink work habits beyond the narrow concepts of when and where — by exploring how and with whom.

An expanded version of this article is available here.

Kate Bravery

Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader at Mercer

Kate Bravery is a Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader for Mercer. She has more than 20 years of experience in human capital consulting and helping organizations achieve a talent advantage through people. Bravery has expertise in people strategy, talent management, assessment/leadership development and HR process design.

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