On a recent summer Friday, 59-year-old LaDonna Speiser took her great-nephew to the pool and helped her mother-in-law run errands. She visits the ophthalmologist and makes an appointment with a physiotherapist. She even spends time reading on the terrace. She is able to do all of this because her employer, a company called Healthwise, offers her a four-day work week.
With the pandemic and the “big quit” making it harder for companies to attract and retain talent, a growing number of white-collar employers like Healthwise are exploring new ways to make working life more attractive. One of them — the four-day work week — considers whether workers really need to work 40 hours a week. As part of its “Worklife” series, NPR morning edition examined how realistic this is.
Speiser’s company began experimenting with the four-day workweek last year. Based in Boise, Idaho, the company produces health education materials for hospitals and health plans. He recently completed a pilot trial run by the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, which helps organizations move away from the traditional five-day workweek.
For some companies, the benefits are obvious
For Healthwise, reducing work to four days was actually good for business.
“Our revenue has grown this year more than expected,” says CEO Adam Husney. “We delivered on time or ahead of what we did. I would say the things that we are able to measure have all been positive.”
Additionally, these positives tie into one of the goals of the trial, which was to learn how a four-day work week can help employees suffering from burnout.
“A lot of people spend more time in the office than they need to,” says Juliet Schor, an economist and professor of sociology at Boston College. Schor is the author of the book The Overworked Americanand leads research at 4 Day Week Global.
“If work were organized more efficiently,” she says, “[employees] could do it in less time, go home and have a better life.”
Companies that join the pilot program are invited to test a four-day work week for six months. The condition for participation is not a reduction in salary, but a substantial reduction in the number of hours. The vast majority of participants went to four days with 32 hours of work, with Friday being the most common day off. So far, 22 companies in the US and 70 in the UK have signed up for a trial this year. Australian, Canadian and New Zealand companies are also involved.
Depending on the job, this may not be a realistic option
Admittedly, the experience is not for everyone.
“If you look at the companies that are pioneering the four-day week, technology is very much at the forefront,” Schor says. Kickstarter, with around 100 employees, is a notable company in the trial. “White-collar work is the dominant kind of work right now,” she notes.
Indeed, it seems that it may be easier to try out a four-day work week in an office environment, where there is often more flexibility with hours, than in other industries. . When NPR called a manufacturing plant in the northeast that makes steel products, a floor manager who answered the phone said he didn’t have time to call a supervisor to speak formally. Before hanging up, he said the factory was so struggling with supply chain shortages and backlogs that there was no way to work a four-day workweek.
But when it comes to white-collar workers, one of Schor’s goals is to see if cutting working hours is actually achievable. She referred to an experience with healthcare workers in Sweden, where nurses were given six hours a day instead of their usual eight hours to combat stress.
“What these experiments showed was that the nurses who got the six-hour days, as expected…were happier,” Schor says. “But care facilities had to hire people for those overtime hours. And what they found was that although there was a slight increase in costs, a lot of those extra wages were offset by lower health care costs and lower unemployment for their existing workforce.”
Ultimately, Schor says the four-day workweek ends up costing employers less — not just in terms of revenue, but also in terms of productivity.
“And of course patient outcomes have improved,” Schor says of the Swedish trial. “So I think we’re going to start to see that in healthcare precisely because they have a lot of burnout. The other thing in healthcare, of course, is mistakes. When you have tired and stressed employees, you are more likely to make mistakes.”
Some HR professionals see downsides
Some experts say the four-day work week has obvious downsides that are important to consider. While Healthwise gives employees Fridays off, some HR professionals say it can create a scheduling challenge.
David Lewis, CEO of human resources consultancy OperationsInc, says the post-COVID-19 workplace has already made it difficult for employees to disconnect.
“I hear more and more of ‘I work from home’ or ‘I live at work,'” Lewis says. “People don’t turn off their laptops, they don’t unplug their phones.”
For Lewis, fundamental aspects of work-life balance are at stake. In a recent study, New Zealand researchers found that while employees were attracted to the four-day working week, in practice several aspects of their work intensified after the change, especially the pressure exerted by managers on elements such as performance.
“How exactly are you going to move people in the exact opposite direction to think about three days versus two days off when [they’re] trouble logging off for even a few hours during an entire seven-day week?”
Similarly, for Lindsay Tjepkema, CEO of a marketing technology company called Casted, Fridays off is an exciting idea, but it doesn’t necessarily improve the lives of its employees.
“Real flexibility is being able to say, ‘Hey, I want to start my work day late’ or ‘I want to quit early on Wednesdays for children’s reasons, for friends, for personal reasons, for pet reasons,'” says Tjepkema. “So if I impose this flexibility on our business, that means you have Fridays off, that’s not flexibility. It’s imposing a day off.”
The trials that Schor is helping to run are still ongoing, so there isn’t enough definitive data to draw any conclusions about how much money companies can save or how much improved performance and employee satisfaction can be achieved through a four-day work week. And of course, all of this is happening in a tough economy. Inflation hits businesses as well as workers. Interest rates are on the rise, leaving many business owners bracing for a recession. Even so, Schor is convinced that the four-day workweek has irreversible momentum.
“If you think about things like…a Friday off every two weeks, a Friday off in the summer, no meetings on Fridays…Friday gradually becomes a day when people are less plugged into their work,” says Schor. . “And one of the things we know is that once people have something like that, it’s very hard to take it away.”
LaDonna Speiser saw this. She has been working a regular four-day week since February. When we asked her if she would be willing to give that up for another job somewhere else, she sort of laughed and said her life had changed with this new schedule. She has more now and she’s not so ready to give it up.