CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Four-day work weeks not only makes employees happier, but they also make businesses richer, according to the world’s largest trial on the concept. Researchers say knocking 20 percent off of weekly work hours leads to employees taking 65 percent fewer sick days and 57 percent fewer staff quitting. On average, staff working four-day weeks are also 71 percent less likely to “burnt out” and 39 percent less stressed, versus how they felt at the start of the six-month trial.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge add that company revenue also increases, though only by 1.4 percent on average. Of the 61 U.K. companies that took part in the pilot program, 92 percent say they plan to keep the four-day week. A total of 18 companies announced the change is permanent.
What are people doing with their time off?
Most employees spent their extra time off doing “life admin” tasks, such as shopping and chores, allowing them to take a proper break for leisure activities on Saturday and Sunday. This led to one employee explaining their “Sunday dread” disappeared. Every participant also reported doing more of what they loved — from sports, to cooking, to music production and volunteering.
Some even used the time off to get more professional qualifications. Parents saved childcare costs with a midweek day off or had extra time to themselves if their kids were older.
“Before the trial, many questioned whether we would see an increase in productivity to offset the reduction in working time – but this is exactly what we found,” says sociologist Professor Brendan Burchell, who led the University of Cambridge side of the research, in a media release.
“Many employees were very keen to find efficiency gains themselves. Long meetings with too many people were cut short or ditched completely. Workers were much less inclined to kill time, and actively sought out technologies that improved their productivity.”
“Almost everyone we interviewed described being overwhelmed with questions from other organizations in their industry that are interested in following suit,” Burchell continues. “When we ask employers, a lot of them are convinced the four-day week is going to happen. It has been uplifting for me personally, just talking to so many upbeat people over the last six months. A four-day week means a better working life and family life for so many people.”
Employees in all kinds of jobs can benefit from an extra day off
Across the United Kingdom, 2,900 employees ditched a day of work. These workers included online retailers, financial service providers, animation studios, and even local fish-and-chip shop employees. Other industries switching to a four-day work week included consultancy, housing, IT, skincare, recruitment, hospitality, marketing, and healthcare companies.
The team surveyed employees throughout the trial. Self-reported levels of anxiety and fatigue decreased across staff rooms, while mental and physical health improved. Respondents announced they found it easier to balance work with family and social commitments with an extra day off. In fact, 60 percent felt they were more able to combine paid work with care responsibilities, and 62 percent said their social lives were more balanced. Employees also felt more positive about working culture and more valued by employers, saying they corralled each other to make the four-day week a success.
“Across a wide variety of different sectors of the economy, these incredible results show that the four-day week actually works,” says Joe Ryle, Director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, who is calling the results a “major breakthrough moment” for the idea of shorter working weeks.
“When you realize that day has allowed you to be relaxed and rested, and ready to absolutely go for it on those other four days, you start to realize that to go back to working on a Friday would feel really wrong – stupid actually,” explains the CEO of a consultancy organization involved in the trial.
How do you break up the 4-day work week?
Companies either stopped completely for a three-day weekend or staggered a reduced workforce over a week. One restaurant calculated their 32-hour week over a year and created longer opening times in the summer and far shorter ones during winter. Some traded the days off for fewer holiday vacations, or made staff agree they could be called in on short notice, or only allowed them to keep the extra day off if they met their performance targets.
In order to maintain performance targets, employers set up meetings with clearer agendas. Companies also introduced interruption-free “focus periods” and reformed email etiquette to reduce long chains and sky-high inboxes. Production processes were reanalyzed, and end-of-day tasks lists were created for effective handovers and a head start the next day.
“It was common for employees to describe a significant reduction in stress,” says researcher and Cambridge PhD candidate Niamh Bridson Hubbard. “Many described being able to switch off or breathe more easily at home. One person told us how their ‘Sunday dread’ had disappeared.”
Unlike other four-day week studies, Cambridge researchers conducted extensive interviews with employees and CEOs before, during and after the trial.
“The method of this pilot allowed our researchers to go beyond surveys and look in detail at how the companies were making it work on the ground,” says Dr. David Frayne, a research associate at the University of Cambridge.
“I hated the pandemic, but it’s made us see each other much more in the round, and it’s made us all realize the importance of having a healthy head, and that family matters,” notes the CEO of a non-profit organization that took part in the trial.
Why would employers think this is a good idea?
Senior managers joined the pilot program thinking the four-day week would attract talent in the post-COVID job market. Some felt it was an appealing alternative to unlimited remote work, which they felt risked company culture. Others watched staff suffer health problems and bereavement during the pandemic and experienced an increased moral responsibility toward employees.
In several companies, draining work meant long hours were being discussed well before COVID-19. Video game studio CEOs pointed to high-profile examples of “crunch and burnout” in their industry, during the final steps of creating a game. Researchers were surprised to find no organization interviewed claimed they were taking part because technology reduced their need for human labor.
Study authors only observed two downfalls in a large company staff that feared workloads intensifying and a creative firm unhappy with “focus time” barring unstructured office chat that often sparks ideas. The study authors collaborated with Boston College and the non-profit group 4 Day Week Global.
South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.