The four-day work week – can it become a reality?

What time do you get into the office on an average work day? What time do you leave?

Do you work the standard 9 – 5 work schedule, or are you able to plan work around the most productive times of your day?

Have you ever wished you could spend less time in the office and dedicate more energy towards other interests or family and friends?

How often do you sit at your desk – productivity levels long diminished, while feeling too guilty to get up and leave before your co-workers?

And when last did you actually work just a 40-hour week?



These are questions currently being asked by workers all over the world. Working hours and their effect on productivity and wellness is by no means a new topic of discussion and debate. Dolly Parton has been vocalizing her concerns about “Workin’ 9 to 5” since 1980 – although she may have had less to say if she knew that prior to 1900, the average American factory employee was required to work 53 hours a week. This was only reduced to the now standard 40-hour work week after much protest by labour unions,[1] and strangely enough has never been seriously contested since. Until now, that is.

The opposition and contestation of the traditional ideology of a 40-hour work week is due to several factors. First, there has been a change in the ordinary citizen’s priorities and values.[2] Growing awareness of the need for responsible consumption and the impact of fast consumerism upon the environment, as well as the desire to pursue more fulfilling activities is making many reconsider not only their lifestyle choices, but also how they spend their time.

Secondly, the increase in global economic growth with the slowing expansion of the global work force has resulted in a shortage of skilled workers and has translated into greater employee bargaining power.[3] Furthermore, the economic security enjoyed by modern day workers, especially when compared to the insecurity faced by their parents and grandparents, means greater appreciation is placed on the availability of time or the lack thereof.[4] In other words, “during booms, more people want to trade money for time.”[5]

Hence, whilst the idea of ‘work-life balance’ has traditionally been the personal responsibility of employees, the shift in power dynamics has now made this a corporate challenge. Companies are being made to review and adapt their working culture to offer employees more flexibility in their working hours.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of this is the recent victory of IG Metall – Europe’s largest industrial labour union. After prolonged negotiations in 2018, IG Metall was able to secure a change in regulations whereby German metal employees are now able to choose to work fewer than 35 hours a week.[6] In fact, they can choose to work as few as 28 hours a week. Notably, fewer hours worked will translate into lower earnings for the employees, and yet this option was chosen by many, demonstrating the value placed by these workers on flexible working hours.

Likewise, employers in the German metal industry are able to offer contracts with extended working hours to those who choose to work for longer periods of time.[7] The purported benefits of such self-selection arrangements is that not only are workers able to adapt their schedules according to their lifestyles and personal characteristics, but employers are likely to gain both in terms of staff productivity and efficiency without increasing their base salary costs.[8]

Benefits of a Shorter Work Week

Research suggests that there are many benefits associated with a shorter working week with regard to the productivity and efficiency of employees[9]. These include:

1. Offering employees an alternative to the repetition of routine day-in and day-out can prevent mental burnout and boredom, while stimulating creativity and lowering staff turnover rates.

2. Removing the expectation of the minimum hours to be worked each week can incentivize greater efficiency and innovation by rewarding ‘smart work’ as opposed to just ‘hard work’.

3. Matching the hours of employees to the natural peaks and troughs of the business (i.e. use them less when there are fewer deadlines and more during busy periods of time) can result in a better use of their energy and skills and allow for recovery time in between large workloads.

4. Job sharing – whereby two or more people share responsibility for the same position – could alleviate the uneven distribution of work between those who wish to work more hours and those who wish to work less.

A shorter working week can also have a potential positive effect on the environment and the general health and well-being of employees in a number of different ways:

1. Fewer people transiting into work at a set time every day will alleviate traffic congestion, while helping to reduce the environmental pollution associated with some modes of transport.

2. Fewer work hours will reduce the risk of work-related stress and illnesses on employees, which in turn can save any economy a significant amount of money. In the United Kingdom in 2017 alone, 12.5 million work days and £5 billion was lost due to depression, anxiety or work-related stress. Likewise, less time spent at the office will enable employees to put more effort into exercising and maintaining their general levels of health/well-being.

3. Environmental and healthcare benefits are also gained by individuals having more time to cook nutritious meals as opposed to purchasing packaged, ready-made meals that have larger carbon footprints. Likewise, greater leisure time may assist in people becoming “less attached to carbon-intensive consumption and more attached to relationships, past-times and places that absorb less money.”

4. Less time spent at the office by both male and female employees may assist in addressing the gender imbalance of household work, where women are still undertaking 60% more unpaid housework than their male counterparts.

5. Flexible work hours can assist employees who have young children or elderly relatives in need of supervision or care.

Moreover, in many ways, the idea of a 40-hour work week died a long time ago.[10] This is particularly apparent in light of the way that technology has blurred the lines between work and leisure time, as few employees actually stop working when they leave the office. Cutting down on the amount of time employees are expected and required to be behind their desks may not in practice result in less work being done.[11]

It is thus no surprise that various companies have begun experimenting with different ‘work week’ designs. These range from allowing employees to determine their own hours (‘flexi time’) to four 10-hour or three 12-hour work days, to working from home.[12] No silver bullet has yet been uncovered, and several long-term research studies are currently being conducted on these different models to determine their effectiveness.

Challenges of a Shorter Work Week

Despite the range of benefits, there are several challenges that will need to be addressed if a shorter work week is to become a viable reality.

The first centers around personal greed and desire for gain. In contrast to predictions from reputable economists such as John Maynard Keynes, historical trends have shown that people do not work less hours once they reach a certain threshold of comfort, security and material possessions.[13] Rather than slow down, material gains appear to stimulate a desire for even more consumption, regardless of whether people have time to actually enjoy their possessions given the long hours they need to work to afford them. Although this trend is beginning to change, as discussed earlier, this entrenched mindset needs to be further challenged in order for people to accept working and earning less money.

Likewise, a four-day work week is a significant departure from the ‘work is everything’ attitude prevailing amongst many professionals today. Particularly in countries within North America, where the preference is for money instead of leisure time and where “more face time typically marks you as a more committed employee.”[14] In such situations, a four-day work week would be seen as a gimmick being promoted by lazy people rather than a more suitable option that boosts productivity and general well-being.

Furthermore, some argue that shortening the work week will actually result in greater stress levels or extra staffing costs, considering that the deadlines and level of work to be completed remains the same.[15] Some employees may prefer a less pressurized 5-day work week as opposed to an intense 4-day work week, with three days to rest.

This would be particularly relevant to those employees for whom the current length of the standard work week is insufficient to complete all their outstanding tasks and who normally resort to overtime in order to meet deadlines.[16] Similarly, for parents or caregivers, an extra two hours a day might not be possible – getting into the office earlier and leaving later cuts into the time they need for household responsibilities.[17] And in some industries, which require 24/7 labour-intensive operations, a shorter work week is just not an option.

In such situations, the purported benefits of a shorter work week would be lost. To be effective, companies would have to consider how they ensure employees are using their time off to actually relax and not just continue working from home. This has been highlighted as a potential failure of the shorter work week model, as many jobs in the modern knowledge economy “are unshaped by time on the assembly line or in the office,”[18] and constant ties to work through technology means employees have very little real downtime. It was with this in mind that France passed a labor agreement allowing their workers to not respond to work emails after hours, regardless of their urgency, as part of their “duty to disconnect from communication tools.”[19]

So where to from here?

It is apparent that while a shorter work week could offer numerous benefits to the economy, environment and society as a whole, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It will only be effective for certain industries and types of workers. For example, poorer workers who cannot afford pay cuts or those professionals who genuinely enjoy working long hours would not find a shorter work week suitable.[20] Similarly, some companies will find it easier and effective to adopt flexible work schedules, where for others, this is simply not feasible. But for many workers in most countries, flexible work hours and the choice of how many hours to work each week, could provide for a significant life improvement. For this reason, we are likely to see many more efforts and experiments to change our working environments, and especially how long and where we work, over the next decade.




1 (Sawhill, 2016)

(Jones, 2017)

3 (Nazareth, 2018)

(Kuper, 2018)

5 (Kuper, 2018)

6 (Pencavel, 2018)

7 (Pencavel, 2018)

8 (Pencavel, 2018)

9 (Hughes, 2018);(Foundation, 2010);(Jones, 2017)

10 (DeMers, 2015)

11 (Nazareth, 2018)

12 (DeMers, 2015)

13 (Ellis-Zapier, 2018);(Sawhill, 2016)

14 (Nazareth, 2018)

15 (actiTIME, 2018)

16 (actiTIME, 2018)

17 (Dembe, 2016)

18 (Keller, 2014)

19 (Keller, 2014)

20 (Kuper, 2018)