Is a 4-Day workweek the cure for burnout?

This article was first published by Mercer here.


Is a four-day workweek the cure for burnout?

If you feel exhausted, you’re not alone: According to Mercer’s 2022 Global Talent Trends Study, 81% of employees are worried about burning out this year. The pandemic undoubtedly accelerated work fatigue, blurring the line between career and personal, and in some industries, making work more intense. The pandemic also ushered in an era of flexible-working innovation, which is now calling into question just how effective and sustainable our work practices really are.

One idea gaining momentum is whether the four-day workweek might be an answer to employee exhaustion and waning productivity. Our research shows that 63% of companies are open to considering a four-day workweek, with 30% implementing it in at least one location or business unit last year (organizations who anticipated double-digit growth this year were even further ahead on implementation). Flexible working is clearly a priority coming out of this pandemic period, with “Flexibility for All” being enshrined in The World Economic Forum’s Good Work Framework and 1 in 5 companies having added a senior role dedicated to flexible/remote/hybrid work. Are flexible arrangements enough, or does addressing energy levels and productivity require a fresh look at how we schedule our work and non-work time?

As flexibility takes hold around the world, how far can we take it?

The 4 Day Week Global organization is leading the charge with the world’s largest trial. Over six months in 2022, more than 3,000 workers in 70 UK-based firms across various industries will take a full day off every week. Participating employers are paying 100% of salaries for 80% of the work.

By creating what it views as a more sustainable work environment, the 4 Day Week pilot expects to see measurable improvement in business productivity and in employees’ mental and physical health. The location for this experiment makes sense: Our research shows that employees in the UK reported the lowest energy levels out of the 16 participating countries (significantly lower than prior years), so it will be interesting to see how a shortened workweek makes a difference to the collective sense of fatigue, as well as to other well-being and productivity outcomes.

Other countries are running similar pilot programs. In Belgium, employees are legally able to opt for a four-day workweek, covering the same total hours with longer days. A successful four-day workweek trial in Iceland resulted in widespread adoption of reduced hours, with most employees taking 1-3 hours off each week. France and Italy are considering legislation to codify additional flex rights, while the Netherlands passed legislation granting remote working flexibility as a legal right and the UK has an active consultation process happening around flexibility more broadly. The United Arab Emirates has already adopted a 4.5-day workweek, kicking off the weekend on Friday afternoon. One study by Henley Business School reports that two-thirds of business leaders who engaged in a four-day workweek witnessed  improvements in productivity, while their employees felt less stressed (70%), happier (78%) and took less time off (62%). With results like these, it is no surprise shortened workweeks are a globally discussed topic. A happier, healthier and productive team — I’m willing to pay for that!

Could a four-day workweek level the playing field?

According to the International Monetary Fund, the answer is yes. Four-day arrangements are especially good options for the 100 million workers globally who cannot perform their jobs remotely. As we all experiment with flexible schedules, it has become even more clear that it is easier to design flexibility for knowledge workers than it is for healthcare providers, construction workers and retail staff, to name a few jobs considered “essential” and tied to location. It will not surprise you to learn that employees in these three industries are thriving less than their peers this year.

As we embark on these pilots, it is important to think inclusively to ensure we design and schedule work that delivers better outcomes for all. Just as advances in self-checkout technology have changed the role of the retail clerk and AI has impacted radiography technicians, we know it is possible to design efficient ways to deliver all types of work – knowledge, frontline, essential, manual. Technology has often served as a great equalizer. But when work is redesigned taking into account AI and automation, there can be unintended consequences for different segments of the workforce – with some feeling like that they are losing out. For example, the automation of tasks has not led to the promised redeployment of talent toward more strategic pursuits. Part of the problem is a lack of time — that is, time to learn new work habits (for example, where, when and with whom to intentionally work when everyone is accessible 24/7), time to learn new technologies (so that we move beyond immediate new features and achieve true productivity gains through full adoption of the relevant technology) and time to learn the new strategic and creative skills necessary to leverage a human advantage for jobs of the future.

Perceptions of inequity around which jobs can benefit from automation, and which are available for flexible work, has led to mounting resentment as the value proposition for different populations evolves along different trajectories. For now, a greater openness to job sharing, split shifts and AI-driven scheduling will be a necessity to bridge the time and productivity gap. And it is worth asking – for care workers and those in services industries, is time off really the best route to improving well-being and tackling the health and wealth protection gap? Or is raising wages a more impactful solution?

The case for intentional work design and intentional working

Several business trends are making room for the four-day workweek. The continued adoption of AI and automation, as well as the broadening of the talent marketplace inside and outside companies, are heralding new ways to get work done. This is driving a rethink of the work operating model with a premium placed on agile working, flow-to-work talent models and enhanced adaptive capacity across the enterprise. If relieving fatigue and burnout are very much a response to our recent collective experience, maybe COVID-19’s lasting impact is in being the catalyst for making well-being an outcome of work design as we reset for a more human-centered age.  

Designing jobs that employees crave and work environments that bring out the best in people has always been a pursuit of organizational psychologists, who have long underscored the importance of autonomy, competence and relatedness as pivotal to fulfilling work (see as far back as 1970, with the likes of Deci and Ryan). Much of this holds true today – people want agency over their work, a sense of belonging, and opportunities to learn and grow. What has changed is the ways in which this can be achieved (for example, via new technologies) but holding us back is our collective resistance to adapting to these new ways of working. Individual habits die hard, and organizational ones even more so. Intentional work design and intentional working – which involves paying attention to how we spend our time – are necessary steps to an enhanced employee experience. This is why these four-day workweek trials are so exciting – they give us a chance to experiment and learn in real-time.