Would a 4-day workweek really be a win-win?
“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.
Earlier this month, a group of progressive Democrats introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would make the four-day workweek the new standard under federal law. While that proposal is unlikely to become law, the fact that it exists at all is a signal of momentum for the idea of shaving off a day from the standard five-day workweek.
Over the past few years, several trials have been conducted in countries around the world to judge the impact of a shorter workweek. Most of those experiments have ended with rave reviews.
The largest trial to date, involving 61 companies in the United Kingdom, released results late last month showing that adopting a 32-hour workweek without cutting pay reduced employees’ stress levels, improved their job satisfaction and generally made them feel happier. Critically, most companies reported no loss of productivity. In the end, 56 of the companies involved said they would stick with a four-day workweek after the trial had ended.
Experiments with shorter weeks have taken different forms. Some companies have had everyone work Monday through Thursday, whereas others have staggered schedules so a portion of their staff is on the clock every day. Another model, which recently became an option in Belgium, involves giving workers the ability to work four 10-hour days so they have an additional day off.
The four-day workweek has gained new energy in the past few years, thanks in part to the massive disruptions of the pandemic and a tight labor market that has empowered workers. But the concept is not new. The five-day workweek was enshrined into federal law in the 1930s, ending an era that often saw workers forced to endure 14-hour shifts over as many as six days a week. Many predicted that shortening to five days was only the start. In 1956, then-Vice President Richard Nixon said the four-day workweek would be a reality in the “not too distant future.” In the late 1970s, a major labor union president said a shorter week was “absolutely inevitable.”
Today, though, the 40-hour week is still the legal standard, and an estimated 35 million Americans spend significantly more time on the job than that, with 9 million working 60 or more hours per week.
Why there’s debate
Backers of the four-day workweek say the idea is a win-win for workers and businesses. Employees would see their quality of life improve dramatically through reduced stress, less burnout and more time to spend with friends and families. Employers would receive the benefits of a happier workforce that would be equally as productive. Some argue that women would be especially helped by a shorter workweek, since they are more likely to deal with the burden — and professional consequences — of caring for children.
But skeptics say the success of a four-day workweek at a few dozen, largely white-collar companies is hardly an indication that it would be successful across the entire economy. They argue that shorter weeks simply aren’t feasible for a huge share of the workforce in industries like agriculture, construction and service. Others say many businesses will struggle to survive or be forced to jack up prices if they are suddenly forced to reduce their workers’ output by 20% without cutting their labor costs at all. There are also concerns that some workers would end up under more stress than they are already if asked to maintain their current output in a condensed time window.
While it's unlikely to be adopted as a new federal standard anytime soon, more and more companies are expected to experiment with the four-day workweek in the near future. Those trials could provide more evidence to bolster, or potentially undercut, the case for shortening the workweek.
Today’s workers should be rewarded for massive gains in productivity in recent decades
“American workers are remarkably productive, but while they have spent the last 50 years steadily producing more and more, real wages have not risen at the same rate. We are, in other words, doing more for less. … Instead, it seems, technological innovations have just made us more tethered to machines and devices (while machines also threaten to take over our creative works). Why are we doing this to ourselves?” — Jill Filipovic, CNN
The extra time off can be used to help address society’s many problems
“The four-day workweek is already coming; it has been studied and tested extensively. But we need to flip the narrative. It’s not about the four days of working. It’s about the appeal and impact of the 52 days off — one day for each week of the year. … The problems we face individually and as a society will take time and a renewed sense of community to address. We have more important things to do now than spend our lives making a tiny group of very rich people even richer.” — Stuart Hickox, Toronto Star
Women would be the biggest beneficiaries
“A four-day week also provides vast improvements in well-being, life satisfaction, and sleep for women. Since women tend to take on more caring responsibilities, the extra day off work was most beneficial for them, allowing the extra load of emotional labor to be spread more evenly.” — Molly Lipson, Business Insider
Workers have shown they can be just as productive while working fewer hours
“American workers are desperate for a break, and pandemic lockdowns have quite recently shown how workers can be just as — and sometimes more — efficient even when traditional work practices are upended. A 32-hour workweek not only would reward productivity but also offers the potential for a three-day weekend, every weekend. If that’s not a good life, I don’t know what is.” — Helaine Olen, Washington Post
A shorter workweek would help correct our deeply harmful relationship with work
“It’s more apparent than ever that our relationship with our jobs is broken. … Shifting to a four-day workweek necessitates a radical and more egalitarian adjustment in our understanding of work itself not as drudgery, status, or backbreaking labor but as a contribution you make, after which you get to take a nap and lead the rest of your life.” — Hannah Gold and Danielle Cohen, The Cut
Quality of life nationwide would measurably improve if we all worked less
“Even before the pandemic, every available happiness metric revealed worrying trends about American life, including increased mental illnesses, declining civic and social engagement with friends and family, work burnout, drug overdoses, and suicide rates. We can’t blame all of our problems on being overworked, but it’s a good place to start.” — Dave Seminara, Washington Examiner
Making work meaningful and more flexible has a much larger impact on employee morale
“When it comes to overall well-being, the quality of the work experience has 2.5 to three times the impact of number of days or hours worked. … If the goal is to build an engaging workplace culture, reducing the workweek may not be the place to start.” — Jim Harter and Ryan Pendell, Gallup
There’s risk that many employees would feel more stress as their work windows shrank
“It can hardly be sustainable or reasonable to expect already frazzled employees to keep working to existing workloads with one fewer day a week, which is why … employers need to be aware of two important factors. First, a reduction in hours must also be accompanied by a revision of or even reduction in workload. Second, time at work could become even more intense and stressful for workers, even if there are productivity benefits to be had.” — Emma Russell, Caroline Murphy, and Esme Terry, Harvard Business Review
The idea is impractical in many industries
“Despite the overwhelmingly positive data, a four-day workweek still seems out of reach for many workers. Tech workers in agile, forward-thinking companies might hope for such a benefit in the near future, but it is harder to envisage the same change for schoolteachers or office workers in more traditional companies. Ultimately, some industries and deeply entrenched work cultures mean the four-day workweek may not be realistic for all employees — at least for now.” — Joanna York, BBC
Longer weekends won’t fix the root causes of worker unhappiness
“Eliminating Fridays does not solve the issue of constant interruption, and days full of meetings, emails, messages, pings, and texts. It is our work habits (and the distractions that come with them) that contribute to burnout. While reducing work hours may delay burnout onset, ignoring the fundamental problems with our work culture and daily habits will inevitably ensure we remain on the same stressful path.” — Curt Steinhorst, Forbes
Shorter workweeks would be economically disastrous
“A 32-hour week means employers will have to hire more employees at a higher overall cost to do the same amount of work. Or they’ll have to pay overtime. Or they’ll simply do less business. Most companies will pass on increased costs to customers, including Americans in other states. Workers will have more leisure but at the cost of less efficiency and a lower standard of living.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
There’s real risk that only well-off white-collar workers enjoy the benefits
“To really make the workweek fair and humane for all Americans — and give people more time to do things that aren’t work — the country will need systemic changes to help workers take back their power. Otherwise, only the most privileged will benefit from the new interest in shorter workweeks — if anyone benefits at all.” — Anna North, Vox
The market, not the law, should determine who works a four-day workweek
“Whether this is workable really depends on the kind of job you do, the kind of equipment you work with, and the other people you have to interact with. I’m opposed to treating this as something that Congress should decide or mandate for everybody. It should be up to the worker and the employer on a case-by-case basis.” — James Hamilton, economist, to San Diego Union-Tribune
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