Jobs and the Future of Work

Burnout and stress lead more companies to try a four-day work week

A company employee prepares to leave the office after working hours on the company's "no-overtime day" in Tokyo, Japan February 15, 2017. Picture taken February 15, 2017.  REUTERS/Issei Kato - RC18596C87A0

Many companies across the world have already started to adopt a four day working week. Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

Emma Thomasson
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Future of Work

Work four days a week, but get paid for five?

It sounds too good to be true, but companies around the world that have cut their work week have found that it leads to higher productivity, more motivated staff and less burnout.

“It is much healthier and we do a better job if we’re not working crazy hours,” said Jan Schulz-Hofen, founder of Berlin-based project management software company Planio, who introduced a four-day week to the company’s 10-member staff earlier this year.

In New Zealand, insurance company Perpetual Guardian reported a fall in stress and a jump in staff engagement after it tested a 32-hour week earlier this year.

Even in Japan, the government is encouraging companies to allow Monday mornings off, although other schemes in the workaholic country to persuade employees to take it easy have had little effect.

Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) is pushing for the whole country to move to a four-day week by the end of the century, a drive supported by the opposition Labour party.

The TUC argues that a shorter week is a way for workers to share in the wealth generated by new technologies like machine learning and robotics, just as they won the right to the weekend off during the industrial revolution.

Image: Britain’s Trades Union Congress TU

“It would reduce the stress of juggling working and family life and could improve gender equality. Companies that have already tried it say it’s better for productivity and staff wellbeing,” said TUC economic head Kate Bell.

Overworked

Lucie Greene, trends expert at consultancy J. Walter Thompson, said there was a growing backlash against overwork, underlined by a wave of criticism after Tesla boss Elon Musk tweeted that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

“People are starting to take a step back from the 24-hour digital life we have now and realize the mental health issues from being constantly connected to work,” Greene said.

A recent survey of 3,000 employees in eight countries including the United States, Britain and Germany found that nearly half thought they could easily finish their tasks in five hours a day if they did not have interruptions, but many are exceeding 40 hours a week anyway - with the United States leading the way, where 49 percent said they worked overtime.

“There has been work creep. Because you always have the technology, you are always working, so people are getting burned out,” said Dan Schawbel, director of executive development firm Future Workplace, which conducted the survey with Kronos.

Schulz-Hofen, a 36-year-old software engineer, tested the four-day week on himself after realizing he needed to slow down following a decade of intense work launching Planio, whose tools allowed him to track his time in detail.

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“I didn’t get less work done in four days than in five because in five days, you think you have more time, you take longer, you allow yourself to have more interruptions, you have your coffee a bit longer or chat with colleagues,” Schulz-Hofen said.

“I realized with four days, I have to be quick, I have to be focused if I want to have my free Friday.”

Schulz-Hofen and his team discussed various options before settling on everybody working Monday to Thursday. They rejected the idea of flexible hours because it adds administrative complexity, and were against a five-day week with shorter hours as it is too easy for overwork to creep back in.

Clients who call on a Friday hear a recorded message explaining why nobody is at the office.

“We got an unexpected reaction from customers. Most of our clients did not complain. They were just jealous,” Schulz-Hofen said.

Office workers take their lunch at a food court in Sydney, Australia May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su - RC1AF3713650
Office workers take their lunch at a food court in Sydney, Australia, May 4, 2018. Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

Grey New York, an ad agency owned by WPP, launched a program in April to allow staff to work a four-day week for 85 percent of their full-time salary.

Schawbel expects the idea to catch on in more companies and countries, but probably not his own: “I think America will be the last country to give us Monday mornings off because we’re so used to this way of working.”

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Jobs and the Future of WorkEconomic GrowthGeo-Economics and PoliticsEducation and Skills
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