The 4-Day Work Week Explained

White office chair in front of brown desk and opened laptop

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide increase in remote work there has been a national conversation focused on reducing employee burnout. The structure of American work is being reexamined at all levels and that includes the length of the standard work week. In an attempt to improve work-life balance and retain employees companies around the country are experimenting with bring the 4-day work week, a staple in countries like Iceland, to the United States. Even members of Congress are beginning to push for a shorter work week, but skeptics suggest that a 4-day work week will make for longer days filled with more stress and decreased morale. In this blog we’ll look at some of the potential pros and cons of the 4-day work week as well as the employers who are experimenting with it already.

Defining the 4-day work week isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. In some instances, the 4-day work week is as simple as chopping off 1 workday each week and having employees work 32 hours instead of 40. The thought process, essentially, is that happier employees can accomplish in 32 hours what takes unhappy employees 40 hours. The 32-hour week is currently favored by employees, but many employers are hesitant to pay the same salary for fewer hours of work.

For other companies/industries where 40 hours of work are still necessary, a 4-day work week adds 2 extra hours to each day in exchange for an additional day off. This version of a shortened work week attempts to make the transition easier on employers. And according to some surveys 2/3 of Americans would prefer working 4 10-hour days instead of working 5 8-hour days.

Pros and Cons

The 32 hour/4-day work week is becoming increasingly popular in parts of Europe, including in Spain where the government has set up a 3-year trial period. During the trial period the Spanish government will subsidize wages for companies interested in trying out a shortened work week. Some American companies like Kickstarter have agreed to make the switch as well. The hope is that reduced energy costs and increased morale will lead to better productivity and offset any concerns about higher salaries/hour as well as higher employee retention. As we’ve discussed before, employee retention is increasingly difficult following the pandemic as 52% of employees feel “burned out” by their current jobs.

For the 40 hour/4-day variation, while the benefit of an extra day off is enticing the concern is that working longer days will be more mentally stressful and physically draining for employees. Plus, without a shift across the entire economy to accommodate people working 10 hours a day it may become more difficult to balance work and life. For example, many childcare facilities cater to a 9am to 5pm work schedule. Unless they open 2 hours earlier or stay open 2 hours later finding childcare may be difficult for parents working a 40 hour/4-day week.

There are additional challenges for customer-facing businesses when switching to a 4-day work week. With your employees each having 1 less day to work it can be difficult to schedule them across typical business hours without adding extra stress to their shifts that can affect customer service. Or, potentially hiring additional staff and wiping out any cost savings of the reduced work week. The state of Utah attempted a 40-hour/4-day work week for state employees a decade ago but eventually abandoned the idea in 2011 after complaints of worse customer service and a failure to reduce costs.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the best type of work week for a company, and that is why it’s so important for employers to experiment with the practice. For every failure like Utah’s 4-day work week you can easily find a success story like Minimal, a Chicago design firm who reported having their best year ever after switching to the 4-day work week.