Time For A 4 Day Week?
Working hard, pushing staff, and advocating a culture of long days to get the job done can seem like an obvious strategy for gaining the edge in business. But two large scale studies recently completed in Iceland suggest this thinking is dead wrong.
The studies, which collectively enrolled over 1% of the entire countries workforce, concluded that reducing the working week at no drop in pay, resulted in no reduction in productivity. The trial was so successful that 86% of the country’s entire workforce is now moving towards reduced hours.
In addition to the overall maintenance, and in some cases improvement in productivity, better physical, social and mental health for workers were also observed.
Iceland is the prime place for such a trial, with the longest working hours in Europe, but also among the lowest per hour productivity.
Lets take a look at the study outcome highlights:
Output in all sectors at least maintained, if not improved. Bare in mind this trial was completed in diverse settings. Shift workers, government employees, offices and schools all took part. That fact makes this finding quite robust, maybe even profound. It may seem counter intuitive, but its actually very logical.
Essentially there is a counterproductive cycle to pushing too hard. (As I wrote about here). Long working hours result in burnout and fatigue. This tiredness translates into a reduced per hour productivity. With increased time on task longer hours are needed to get the work done, and the cycle perpetuates itself.
The exact opposite seemed to happen when shorter hours were enforced. As employee wellbeing improved, and employees were more rested, less tired and less stressed, so time on task reduced. Improved efficiency and thus productivity resulted and fewer hours were needed to get the job done.
In some cases this effect was so strong that net productivity increased despite fewer hours worked.
Physical wellbeing improved through a cluster of different pathways. Stress levels reduced, which had a weak but detectable impact on CVD risk profile. Not only that, but as more free time was available, exercise increased, as did hobby participation. This study did not measure absenteeism, but other studies have shown robust associations between increased exercise and reduced days off due to illness. The same can be stated for reductions in stress. Meaning there may be secondary gains to be enjoyed by both employee and business over and above this study’s observations.
Decreases in stress, overwhelm, and burnout were all reported. Each being a meaningful measurement of mental health. The extra time to rest, engage in restorative practices, exercise and spend time with family, no doubt contributed to this effect. The reduced stress permeated beyond work life into reducing personal life stress also. With more time to run errands and contribute at home, study participants reported reductions in home stress.
One potentially profound impact of shorter working weeks is that the social wellbeing of not only the worker, but also his or her family is greatly improved. Male heterosexual workers were more able to help at home, single parents more able to cope with balancing childcare and work commitments, children were able to spend more time with parents and less in day care, and the home environment was less stressed as a result. This is a potentially huge shift that permeates many areas if viewed at the societal level.
These trials were robust, well designed, long term studies and have impacted the way an entire country is set to structure its working week. Now I am not recommending that every company immediately changes their ways and adopts a 4 day week or 6 hour days. But there are some lessons to be learned here.
Firstly, mind the downward spiral of working longer to make up for low per hour productivity rates. See time constraints as positive constraints that force efficiency and reduce waste.
Secondly, note HOW the companies involved in this trial were able to reduce time worked. The two most common and successful strategies were shortening meetings (as well as improving meeting structures to eliminate wasted time). And altering shift patterns. These two strategies are likely low hanging fruit for most of us.
Lastly, think about optimising workflow. Many companies reported making changes to how work was accomplished that included improved collaboration, which led to increased idea cross pollination as a happy accident.
The temptation might be to fill up the time these three strategies can free up with more work. But the results of this study strongly suggest the most productive things you could do would be to reduce working hours.
A word on attrition and attraction
Not only for the wellbeing and ongoing productivity of your team, but also for the health of your business. Two key metrics that impact bottom line and job satisfaction are attrition and attraction.
This study showed reduced attrition among those enrolled in the study group and improved attractiveness of companies with shorter working weeks to new talent. Easier recruiting and needing to do it less would certainly save most companies significant spends.
Objections to shortening the working week are usually that productivity will be reduced and that overtime will increase to make up for the shorter hours, with the same work needing to be done. This study refuted both of those concerns. It is more likely that your systems can be improved to make up for a reduction in hours worked, and that the gain in productivity will offset the reduced hours and then some. When you factor in secondary gains like easier recruiting, less attrition, absenteeism and mistakes, you might find its a very profitable decision. In any case, its food for thought.
I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
Footnote: Thrive HM will be launching its Team Wide Wellness services to companies large and small in the fall of this year. please connect with me if you’re interested in exploring how well your place of work is.