While there’s no easy way to address concerns about how (and how much) we work, research tells us that no matter what we do, taking a holistic, long-term approach to well- being a labor force is the best path to both happiness and prosperity. Maybe the answer is a four-day work week. Or maybe it’s something else. But we need to start with an honest assessment of the impact of trade-offs between productivity and time on worker well-being. Before attempting a four-day work week, employers should be aware of two important factors. First, a reduction in hours must also be accompanied by a review, or even a reduction, of the workload. Second, time spent at work could become even more intense and stressful for workers, even if there are productivity gains.
Despite the gains workers have made through the Covid pandemic by increasing their workplace flexibility, heavier workloads have meant there is little slack in the system for people to take time off and recover. The effects are obvious. In 2020, 62% of people said they had “often” or “extremely often” burned out in the previous three months, and in 2021, 67% of workers said that stress and burnout had increased since the pandemic. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that initiatives such as the four-day work week, remote and hybrid working, unlimited paid time off and the right to disconnect are gaining popularity in an attempt to address these high workloads, always on. cultures.
But do these solutions really offer a change for workers? Can they help employees and managers rebalance demands? Our work at the ESRC UK-funded Digital Futures at Work (Digit) Research Center suggests that the answers to these questions are complicated and difficult to answer without addressing the real problem: the issue of workloads. excessive and intensification. By focusing so much on where and when to work, policy makers seem to have lost sight of How? ‘Or’ What and How many we work.
For example, in a recent study of New Zealand’s move to a four-day work week, researchers Helen Delaney and Catherine Casey found that not only did work intensify as a result of the change, but that managerial pressures around performance measurement, monitoring and productivity had also intensified. Indeed, several reputable studies on the four-day work week are promoted in the media on the basis that productivity should not drop (or even increase) if the change is well managed.
It can hardly be sustainable or reasonable to expect already exhausted employees to continue working on existing workloads with one less day per week, so while we support work week initiatives four-day shift, employers should be aware of two important factors. First, a reduction in hours must also be accompanied by a review, or even a reduction, of the workload. Second, time spent at work could become even more intense and stressful for workers, even if there are productivity gains. Here’s what leaders need to understand before trying a four-day work week.
Reducing work time does not necessarily reduce work
Unfortunately, removing access to the work (intentionally or not) does not mean that the work itself is deleted. Existing research suggests that the extent to which people like to stay connected outside of work hours is often based on individual differences and circumstances. We also know that staying connected to work outside of work hours can be stressful, but volunteering, personal preferences, and professional role can alleviate that.
Contemporary approaches to performance management also question the extent to which individuals actually have choice when it comes to working outside of working hours. Research shows that people with more intensive workloads tend to ruminate on work outside of working hours and are unable to disconnect until their work issues have been resolved. On the other hand, our own research has shown that some people want to be able to check in on their work and stay connected because it worries them more when they don’t have control over what’s going on, which makes it harder for them to feel in control.
As organizations and governments consider four-day work weeks, it’s important for researchers to ask how different types of leave translate to both wellness and performance benefits. For example, in the four-day work week, does having a full day off each week or working four days of the week help? Can time-use diaries be used to show that people actually stop working when they are disconnected from it and engage in activities that promote well-being and meaning? Do diverse groups and people with family responsibilities benefit equally when they cannot access their work at certain times of the day or week?
Reducing hours should not increase work intensity
The New Zealand pilot of the four-day working week found that, to accommodate their “real work”, employees took shorter breaks and spent less time socializing in order to get back to their measurable tasks. According to Wired, while “some workers enjoyed the ‘exhilarating pace’ and ‘fast pace’, others felt that ‘urgency and pressure caused ‘increased stress levels’, leaving them in need of an extra day off to recover from work intensity.” Research participants lamented that there was no more time for “joking around” and that creativity and innovation were stifled.
The trial of the four-day working week in New Zealand raises alarm bells that shorter working days have not necessarily created welfare benefits, as workers have to struggling to meet the demands of their job. It’s perhaps telling that much of the publicity surrounding the success of Microsoft Japan’s four-day workweek trial was based on how productivity increased dramatically over the study period. . Employers may need to be careful to promote results over well-being if they want to be seen as investing in the work-life balance of their staff.
While the ideas of a right to disconnect or a four-day work week are clearly laudable and well-intentioned, there is a danger in focusing on specific initiatives. A four-day work week probably sounds good to many employees (and maybe even their managers)! But, as with so many things, success is in the details.
There’s no easy way to address concerns about how (and how much) we work, but our research tells us that no matter what we do, taking a holistic, long-term approach to the well-being of labor is the best way. both happiness and prosperity. Maybe the answer is a four-day work week. Or maybe it’s something else. But we need to start with an honest assessment of the impact of trade-offs between productivity and time on worker well-being.