Chelsea Fagan knows it may sound unbelievable to many people. Working just four days a week and getting a full-time salary? Why would any company allow that?
But a year into the pandemic, she decided to implement a four-day workweek at her own company.
“The four-day workweek has been transformative,” says Fagan, co-founder and CEO of The Financial Diet, a popular American media company focused on personal finance. She introduced a four-day, 32-hour workweek at 100% pay for her company in June 2021 as an experimental trial. Since then, she launched a side project and business that’s been flourishing. Her employees have picked up new hobbies and accomplished personal goals.
But the biggest impact of moving from 40-hour to 32-hour weeks, she believes, has been to reduce team members’ unhealthy focus on their jobs. With just 27% of American workers using all their vacation time and about 58% pinpointing their job as the main cause of their mental health challenges, per one recent survey, it’s a welcome benefit.
“We all still love our jobs and are dedicated to them,” she says. “But we are much less defined by them, which I think has been really good for mental health and for sustainability in the actual work that we do.”
Implementing a four-day workweek with no loss of pay is not a panacea for solving our mental health crises and economic issues. But experts say the policy is shown to have far-reaching consequences for some of the biggest issues of our time, including climate change and civic engagement.
“There are not many policy interventions that are available to us that could potentially have the kind of transformative impact that reduced work time could have,” Joe O’Connor, who heads the nonprofit advocacy group 4 Day Week Global, tells The Washington Post.
“It’s in the shift away from a focus on hard work to a focus on smart work. It’s the cultural change in how we work and the impact that could have on how we live, and I think that that’s the piece that’s really revolutionary.”
Changing the status quo
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began turning the global economy inside out and challenging centuries-old labor practices around the world, employers have rushed to incorporate more flexible remote and hybrid work models to keep their businesses running.
As the pandemic highlighted the absurd extent to which modern life centered on work, Fagan, too, began to interrogate not only how we work — but how much we work.
“There’s this feeling that everything is up for questioning. For me one of those things to question was, do we need to work five days a week?” she says. “Because there’s a lot of really good data out there that shows that a four-day work week increases productivity. It increases revenue. In many cases, it increases employee satisfaction.”
Studies from New Zealand, North America, Japan and most recently the U.K. have shown that reduced working hours increase worker engagement, job satisfaction and retention, while maintaining productivity and revenue.
For workers, the four-day workweek could have several health benefits as well. Employees in the U.K. pilot trial reported improved physical and mental health, with 71% feeling less burnt out, 39% feeling less stressed and 54% feeling a reduction in negative emotions.
Employees in a major four-day workweek trial reported improved physical and mental health, with 71% feeling less burnt out, 39% feeling less stressed and 54% feeling a reduction in negative emotions.
With less time stuck in the office and more time for hobbies and interests, workers were able to improve their overall wellbeing by engaging in activities that increased their happiness and wellbeing. The trial also found that workers on a four-day workweek reported less anxiety, fatigue and sleep problems. These results could be monumental in combating the recent mental health crisis fueled by the pandemic.
Of the 61 companies that took part in a six-month U.K. trial, 91% have opted to continue the reduced work schedule and 18 companies made it a permanent change. About 15% of employees in the trial reported that “no amount of money” would convince them to return to a typical five-day schedule.
Fagan’s company saw similar outcomes. Her colleague documented the process and tracked company metrics after launching the four-day schedule. The results?
“In the initial stages we had found that our revenue and productivity were remaining steady, which means that we were able to accomplish the same things in less time,” she says. In the two and half years since, the company has actually seen its revenue and revenue grow substantially.
“It became kind of a no-brainer,” Fagan says.
A new work environment
For a growing number of companies worldwide, the four-day workweek is a practical way to manage the changing expectations of workers, who are increasingly demanding jobs that enable a healthier work-life balance.
Scottish data scientist and entrepreneur Phil McParlane saw the writing on the wall early. In 2020, recognizing this shift in working culture, he launched job board 4dayweek.io to help workers find jobs at companies moving toward a four-day workweek.
The platform now has more than 100,000 subscribers, with hundreds of companies posting roles. “We pride ourselves on being a forward thinking company who puts life before work,” one company touts. “There will be almost no restrictions on work flexibility, as long as the needs of the business are supported,” another writes.
Of all the companies that have done it, I can only think of two companies out of hundreds that went back to working five days a week.
McParlane says despite the growing curiosity for reduced working hours, there is still resistance from most major employers. Companies fear that their revenue will drop sharply, he says, but studies have consistently shown that otherwise.
“At the end of the day, four is a smaller number than five, so you’d expect the output to go down,” he says. “I don’t blame people for having that kind of knee-jerk reaction. But of all the companies that have done it, I can only think of two companies out of hundreds that went back to working five days a week.”
The four-day workweek shows benefits for employers and workers alike. The results of the U.K. study, which included around 3,000 employees, show that reduced working hours is especially transformative for certain demographics, including working mothers.
“The metrics that women reported were all higher, every single one of them,” McParlane notes. “A lot of women, when they have children, feel that they can’t go back to the workplace because five days is just such a huge commitment. So when you drop it down to four, it’s 20% less work time, it’s 50% more of a weekend.”
Indeed, companies that reduce their work hours are more able to retain top talent due to their balanced work environment.
Vasilis Danias, co-founder and CEO of Bitloops, a software development company based in Greece, has seen this firsthand since the company adopted a four-day workweek in May 2022. Productivity and revenue remained the same, he says, but employee satisfaction and retention improved noticeably.
“Since we started, nobody has left the company,” says Danias. “We’re eight people, but considering that developers are contacted daily by recruiters from other countries that might be paying a lot more, I think it’s pretty significant. Even though we’re not the most competitive company in terms of salaries, we’re really competitive in terms of the work environment.”
In addition to collecting data on workers and company productivity, the U.K. trial tracked another important metric: carbon emissions.
Having less work days reduces average worker commute and energy usage, which in turn helps individuals leave a smaller carbon footprint, experts explain. Indeed, the trial found that a four-day week could cut commuting time by around 30 minutes a week and curb workplace energy usage.
In addition to reducing the amount of time spent commuting, typically in gas-guzzling cars, researchers note that many participants in four-day workweek trials used their additional day off to partake in healthy and low-carbon activities: exercising, hiking, spending time with family, volunteering, engaging in hobbies at home.
The link between a shorter workweek and environmental benefits are no surprise to researchers. Over a decade ago, a Political Economy Research Institute analysis of 29 countries from 1970 to 2007 estimated that cutting work hours by 10% could reduce their ecological footprint by about 12%, carbon footprint by 14.6% and carbon dioxide emissions by about 4%.
“If you’re being worked literally into a stupor, how engaged are you going to be politically? If we could imagine a different work week, I think we could create a healthier nation.
Such numbers could make the four-day workweek a powerful policy change to help governments reach their environmental goals. But they can also carry other powerful, unexpected benefits for our political culture.
Robert Anthony Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations, believes shorter workweeks would produce better, more engaged voters who are more involved in their communities.
“If you’re being worked literally into a stupor, how engaged are you going to be politically?” Bruno asks. “If we could imagine a different work week, I think we could create a healthier nation. We would be lifting up our working class and giving them time, if you will, to feed the more poetic and beautiful aspects of their culture.”
But existing labor structures will not simply crumble overnight to save the planet or uplift the working class. So how can communities reconstruct labor systems to allow for a healthier society?
Bruno says it will begin with “enlightened employers” that realized that society, and their own companies, cannot return to the pre-pandemic status quo. But it will also take robust government incentive programs to entice employers, and workers – including unionized employees – who negotiate for fewer working hours, he says.
“Maybe then we’ll have a little spark of a revolution that’ll unfold over time,” he says. “Let’s give working people a chance to really be a part of their democracy, maybe give them a chance to run for the school board or just to be engaged in a fuller life.”