With the hyper speed of progress in both technology and globalization, it is easily possible to work around the clock, every day of the week, from wherever you are. Given this, it is almost ironic to think that bright minds such as John Maynard Keynes once believed technology would free mankind from tedious labor, making way for a lifestyle that permitted “leisure, in the sense of free time to use as we please, as opposed to idleness.” In 1930, Keynes predicted we would all be working a 15-hour workweek by 2030. And yet, in 2022, burnout is a WHO-recognized crisis and overwork is the next pandemic.
A need for more emphasis on well-being, mental health, and work/life balance was a long time coming, yet it took a global pandemic to really bring it to the forefront. Now that workers around the world have experienced more autonomy in how they schedule their lives and their work within that framework, it is nearly impossible to imagine going back fully to the old ways, and one idea that is gaining momentum in the U.S. and beyond is adopting a four-day workweek.
How can the four-day workweek help address some of our biggest challenges?
Enter the four-day workweek. The pandemic revealed another long-standing problem in the workforce: lack of equity. Woman, and particularly women of color, were forced to leave their jobs during the pandemic at a much higher percentage than other groups to for example take care of children or older relatives.
Would a four-day workweek make room for more talent in the workforce, and help to ensure more diversity, equity, and inclusion in doing so?
Well, let’s start by breaking down the concept of a four-day work week. Would working four days mean 80% of a regular, 40-hour salary? Or would a four-day job be considered full time? The potential benefits of a four-day work week – no matter the model – may outweigh the disadvantages for many companies.
The benefits are clear: more time for not only leisure, as Keynes envisioned, but family, hobbies, volunteering, education. Some companies have even come across an unexpected conclusion: those working just four days are much, much more productive. But there’s another consideration: Would working fewer days have a positive impact on helping to combat the climate crisis?
Here are the many ways a four-day workweek might address some of the largest challenges facing us today, at work and beyond.
The four-day work week can help save the planet
Without a daily commute by car, bus, or train; without endless business travel, there was a noticeable drop in CO2 emissions, early on in the lockdowns: Researchers found that daily global CO2 emissions decreased by –17% by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half from changes in surface transport. Even pre-pandemically, a 2019 study found that a four-day workweek would lead to a 20% reduction in carbon emissions in the UK, by reducing the number of private cars on the road daily.
The four-day workweek can improve well-being – and increase talent retention and attraction
In theory, the four-day workweek has obvious benefits to our well-being: It would enable us to have more fluidity in our lives by allowing more time for all the aspects that deserve our attention, not just our jobs. It also has the potential to create additional stress if we are unable to set the boundaries and really buy in to the concept that work can be done in fewer days than we are accustomed.
A lot of this depends on how the workweek would be structured. Does it mean a standard 32-hour week? Does it mean four 10-hour days? How, if at all, would compensation change if an employee is working fewer than fourty hours? The potential for stress is actually higher if an employee is working two extra hours a day (studies show our productivity quickly declines after eight hours), or if they fear being perceived as less than full-time employees?
The model would have to be clear and accepted, and the onus would be on managers and individuals to avail of the health benefits a four-day workweek promises, rather than leading to even more over-work or work insecurity.
In addition, a four-day work week could also increase talent retention and talent attraction in a talent-scarce market. It’s too early to see concrete data on such an offering.
The four-day work week can improve equity
The advantage of a four-day workweek in terms of improving equity are among the greatest arguments in favor of the change. The pandemic brought to light realities that were easier to ignore before 2020, namely that women around the world are three times more likely to be responsible for childcare than men.
Even before the pandemic, 1.4 million American women were not working because they were taking care of young children. In 2021, due to the pandemic, this numbered surged to 10 million according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A disproportionate number were women of color.
A 32-hour workweek could help address this issue, partially, to enable all working parents, fathers and mothers, more space to take care of child and other family member care responsibilities without having to leave the workforce. This serves both to save money on childcare, allow parents to spend more time with their children and gives more flexibility to fulfil career ambitions while also being engaged in family life.
One undeniable lesson we’ve learned from the pandemic is that we’ve taken a lot of truths about how we work for granted. We have an opportunity now to reset certain patterns of behavior and models of thinking to consider more holistically how work can impact everything around us, from our own health to the equity of our society and the human rights of everyone, and to the security and sustainability of our planet as a whole. With these priorities in mind, a four-day workweek might have real impact on wellbeing and sustainability.