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The 4-day work week – Marketing myth or happiness catalyst?

Chris Hyland | 2nd May 2019

I had the pleasure of hosting a roundtable with some customers and friends of The Happiness Index (THI) recently. We hotly debated the pros and cons of implementing a 4-day work week. I wanted to hear my industry peers’ thoughts on whether it can help to boost employee engagement, company culture and happiness… or if it’s a hindrance!

To give everyone context, part of my role at THI is to create the best possible culture to ensure all our people flourish. Our people vision is “To be recognised as the go-to example of a company achieving employee and organisational happiness.” I must confess that this was great research for me, as we have been considering implementing a 4-day work week.

I found many of the reports to be quite contradictory, but you can make up your own mind:

Yes, the 4-day work week is a great idea

  • Increased employee happiness – Pretty obvious one to start with; quite simply you are only working 4 days in a 7-day week. So rather than working for 71% of your week, your working time drops to 57% and the work-life seesaw is much better balanced.
  • Better productivity – Research shows that people can only operate at peak capacity for so long, and when it goes over, the quality of work suffers. By shortening the week, it focuses the mind on doing the stuff that matters.
  • Stronger efficiency – Stats have shown that when there is less time to execute a job function, the output becomes higher and more focused as there is less time to do it.
  • Team building – When people are in the same boat everyone is much more likely to row in the same direction. The same goes for team building when the team and company goals are aligned to creating high output in 4 days rather than 5.
  • Environmental benefits – Last but not least, and without doubt, the most interesting of the lot is the benefit to the environment. Less travelling and commuting will reduce every employee’s carbon footprint.

No, the 4-day work week is a terrible idea

  • Is it an irreversible decision? – Imagine you are an employee of a business that trails the 4-day week to drive up productivity and efficiency, but then 3 months later the business decides it is not working and flips it back to a 5-day work week. The negative effect on employee morale could be huge.
  • The risk of output – Contrary to belief, there is a consensus that by effectively increasing everyone’s workday output by 5% that this could lead to more stress and burn out.
  • 5 does not actually become 4 – The in-office hours may change, but the employees are putting in the same hours because the workload has increased, and they need the additional day to catch up. There are already thousands of people who have chosen to do a 4-day work but in general, organisations are open for 5 or 7 days a week, so the emails do not stop.
  • Unutilised labour – A study on the Netherlands’ workweek revealed that 1.5 million people wanted to work more hours but were unable to.
  • Can all industries participate? Is the 4-day work week only restricted to white-collar office workers? What about the NHS or in the hospitality sector where hotels are open 24/7, 365 days a year?

What about alternative solutions?

Many organisations already offer alternative solutions that are widely used in companies today. Here are a few:

  • Sabbaticals – You can take extended time off and still return to employment at the end of it.
  • Unlimited holiday – Exactly what it says on the tin. Take as many days holiday as you like. I’ve even seen businesses ask for holiday snaps upon return to stick on the wall. This encourages others to take time off.
  • Roll over holiday days – “You only took 15 out of the 25 days holiday this year? No problem. Roll them over to next year and take 35!”
  • Use it or lose it – Alternatively, you can create a ‘Use it or lose it” system where all unused holiday days will not roll over. Some businesses adopt this to encourage their people to use all their days every year to avoid burnout and encourage better work-life balance.
  • Maybe even shut your company down for 1 year…

Dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s

So, there’s the evidence! I must admit I was slightly taken aback that not one person at our hosted roundtable event felt a 4-day week was the answer. It kept coming back to one clear reason… The 4-day work week is a blanket approach to your employees. Don’t presume what is best for your people, ask them and adapt accordingly.

I think flexibility is the answer, but flexibility means many things to many people. To get the best out of your people you need to truly understand what is important to them individually. As our friend (and Senior HR professional) Jase Whiting commented: “It’s not a recipe, it’s a menu”. Couldn’t agree more!

The truth is, I feel most of these solutions are marketing ploys and are not necessarily implemented with the best intentions for all. It might suit the CEO/founder or leadership team, but what about everyone else? I know for a fact that I would love to take 1 full month off a year in order to disconnect from the world and recharge, but I wouldn’t dream on enforcing that on our employees because they may want to do something totally different.

Will we be implementing the 4-day work week at The Happiness Index? With the current evidence available, I don’t believe it is a viable option. However, I think we can go one better! Our plan is to provide everyone with a menu of benefits where our employees can choose what suits them best.

  • “Want to start work at 6am? No problem.”
  • “Want to study every Friday afternoon to further your education? No problem.”
  • “Don’t want to take up our cycle to work scheme? No problem.”
  • “Want us to help pay back your student loan? No problem.”

We are like snowflakes, all different in our own way. #FreedomToBeHuman

I’d love to hear what you all think…