Work just four days a week but get paid for five? That may sound too good to be true, but new research says it may not be: More than two dozen companies that instituted a four-day week in a pilot project saw boosted sales, lower burnout and improved absenteeism, a new report finds.
The study, released Wednesday and conducted by researchers at Boston College, University College Dublin and Cambridge University, tracked employers in a small pilot research study. Companies in the research reported revenues that rose 8% over the study period, burnout scores that fell for two-thirds of employees and an amount of sick or personal leave time that declined by roughly a couple of hours a month.
“The results are pretty remarkable,” says Boston College professor Juliet Schor of the research, which involved 33 companies located in the U.S. and Ireland, as well as one headquartered in Australia. (Some employees were based globally; 27 of the 33 companies participated in the study). “I see this kind of trial as proof of concept. It shows that companies can succeed with this schedule and with this model.”
The study examines results from the first of several pilot studies being coordinated by an advocacy group, 4 Day Week Global, which promotes the idea of employees working 80% of their traditional hours for 100% of their original pay while still producing 10o% of their prior output.
“I see this kind of trial as proof of concept. It shows that companies can succeed with this schedule and with this model.”
While the group recruited the companies for the study and helped design the finished report, 4 Day Week Global was not involved in the data collection or analysis, and the research was funded by independent sources, says Schor.
The results follow a mid-point report of the group’s pilot program in the U.K., as well as a growing interest in the concept as burnout and mental health rise, technology expands working hours exponentially and expectations about work-life balance evolve following a global pandemic, generational shifts and a tight labor market that, until recently, has given workers more power.
“The combination of workplaces that were already too demanding and then the pandemic on top of that—it’s just brought too many people to where it’s too hard to cope with the levels of work time that are expected,” says Schor.
The not-for-profit group was launched by Charlotte Lockhart and Andrew Barnes, an entrepreneur who instituted a four-day week at his New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian, and provides a platform for those interested in a four-day week practices.
Lockhart said in an interview that she often gets the question “if you’re going to squeeze all of that into four days, aren’t your people going to burn out?” But she believes the results help bolster why that doesn’t happen: By becoming more productive, cancelling unnecessary meetings, redesigning work practices and cutting out wasted time, she says, “I think the results back up what Andrew and I have been saying all of this time.”
Full results for the pilot of U.K. companies, which reported mid-point results in September and includes some 70 companies, are due in February, Lockhart says.
The pilot study for the U.S. and Ireland, which included 903 employees from the participating companies, 495 of which responded to the researchers’ surveys, is small. Still, it offers a snapshot of how workers feel about the approach: They reported greater control over their schedules, higher levels of productivity and a greater sense of how well they were doing their jobs.
Schor is careful to note that while improved employee well-being scores are plausibly tied to a four-day week model, it’s unclear whether the company’s results, such as increased revenues, can be attributed to shorter work hours. Many are small companies that were already growing quickly, and the study only had one “control” employer working traditional hours.
But none of the 27 companies that participated said they were planning to end the approach, says Schor, who has researched long work hours in America since the early 1990s. “I am not saying that every company can succeed tomorrow with this model. … But what I think is going to happen is it’s going to be viable for more and more companies.”
“We’re no longer the crazy people in the room. The conversation seems to have shifted from why should we reduce work time to how can we reduce work time.”
Lockhart and Barnes say that even with slowing hiring, mounting layoffs and the threat of a recession, they see increasing interest in the approach, including from larger companies that have not been as involved in early trials.
Unilever, for instance, said recently that it was expanding its four-day week trial in New Zealand to Australia after encouraging results.
“Even with a slowing economy, what we’re seeing is a tight labor market,” Barnes says. A four-day model that requires the same amount of output can help increase focus on productivity and reduce commuting and energy costs, as well as wage inflation, Barnes argues.
“We’re no longer the crazy people in the room,” Lockhart says. “The conversation seems to have shifted from why should we reduce work time to how can we reduce work time.”
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