The science behind a four-day week

An extra day off a week can work for businesses, but measuring the productivity benefits makes it tricky to argue the case, says journalist Richard Priday. He investigates the science behind a four-day week and why the calls for reducing our working week may be growing louder, but believes that change needs to be based on evidence

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on Wired.

The UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) has called for a four-day maximum working week as part of its report into how changes to the current and future workplace can best benefit workers. This is based on a survey of its members which indicated it was the most popular option, favoured by 45% of participants, with 81% wanting a reduction of at least one day. However, this only reflects the popularity of the idea; the effects of four-day weeks, and of reducing working time in general, are more complex.

The effects of four-day weeks, and of reducing working time in general, are more complex.

When factory work became the primary form of employment in the western world employees, originally, worked six days a week, with Sunday, the traditional Christian day of rest, as a day off. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that businesses, like US car manufacturer Ford, decided that a five-day week, working eight hours a day, was better for its employees. This was justified by the fact that the extra time off would increase consumer spending and aid the economy and the increased resting time would mean workers’ productivity would not be reduced.

This change was also a reaction to automation, and the integration of the production line into the factory, meaning that it could more easily keep its output consistent with less human input. The parallels between this and the TUC setting its sights on big, tech-heavy businesses like Amazon are clear.

A trial conducted in New Zealand at trustee company Perpetual Guardian between March and April 2018 encouraged a major discussion of the four-day working week. The aim, according to the company’s founder and CEO Andrew Barnes, was to both improve productivity and help employees better manage their lives. The trial was studied by academics at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and the University of Auckland (UoA) and the results were encouraging: work remained up to standard, while teamwork and work engagement increased, and stress decreased.

However, there were some concerns thrown up by the trial, including additional stress on certain employees, including a group having to break the terms of the trial in order to keep up with a busy period. Additionally, while there was no drop in work quality, there was no improvement either. Away from their desks, the staff responded very well to the extra time off, with the exceptions of individuals who enjoyed the social aspects of work, or found it difficult to stay occupied without the extra day in the office.

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The reports, by Helen Delaney of UoA Business School, and Jarrod Haar, professor of human resources management at AUT, both suggested that, with greater preparation and training, and a clarified purpose of how flexibly the extra day off should be treated, these problems could be resolved.

So is there a way to use the extra day off to increase productivity? It’s difficult to figure out. Measuring daily productivity is made tricky by a large number of variables – the job itself, the demand for its services and the economic status of the worker, to name a few – and although businesses may measure their own productivity for their own records, this doesn’t tend to get shared around.

So is there a way to use the extra day off to increase productivity? It’s difficult to figure out.

Weekday productivity

A 2007 report by the London School of Economics looked into how productivity changes over the course of the working week and concluded that fatigue, practice-efficiency (the concept that a worker increases in efficiency after a drop in skill over a rest period) and bursts of motivation caused by deadlines or upcoming time off are major influences on the quality or quantity of a business’ output.

Concentrating working hours during the most productive days of the week (in most cases, Tuesday to Thursday) may have a positive effect, as suggested by a 1999 paper by Robert Lajeunesse, who advocated for working four days, but for ten hours each day instead of eight. However, Bryson and Forth’s preferred option is simply greater flexibility for working hours, rather than changing one schedule for another.

The transition and implementation of a four-day week is certainly achievable, as shown by the New Zealand trial, but it would be wrong to expect that, if such a scheme was implemented at a workplace, there would be an automatic boost to productivity. The case for a four-day week is not made by the direct benefits to the bottom line, but by the improvement to the lives of staff members.

So, if better employee morale is your only goal, then perhaps it’s time consider being more flexible.

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