After Labor Day weekend last week, many of us are wishing four-day workweeks were the norm year round.
The 40-hour, five-day workweek has been the topic of much debate dating back to the last century. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 technological advances would allow people to work as few as 15 hours a week.
With nearly 15 years to go, Keynes prediction may seem light years away from reality, but in recent years a number of arguments have surfaced in favor of a shorter workweek. This past July, the president of the U.K.’s leading public health industry group argued Britain should switch to a four-day workweek, attributing stress and rising health concerns including high blood pressure and work-related mental health issues to the fact that most of us work five days a week.
Mexican telecom billionaire entrepreneur Carlos Slim recently argued in favor of a three-day workweek stating the shorter workweek would improve the quality of life of employees, making them healthier and more productive. His three-day workweek proposal comes with a couple of caveats, however: employees would work 10 or 11 hours a day in those three days, and would continue to work into their seventies.
Some countries are already experimenting with a shorter workweek. The Netherlands has had four-day workweeks for years, and some North American companies are toying with the concept. In 2012, 37Signals cofounder Jason Fried wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times citing his company’s 32-hour work week from May through October helps improve workers’ focus. “When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important,” he wrote. In a post earlier this year, I cited a tech company, Treehouse, who has implemented a year-round four-day workweek, noting higher employee morale, greater focus, and a greater ability to attract and retain top talent among the benefits.
The five-day workweek was the focus of a recent article in the Atlantic. Author Philip Sopher says we can thank the Great Depression for our two-day weekend as prior to that time American workers were obligated to work half days on Saturdays and only received Sundays off. The shorter hours were considered a remedy to the country’s unemployment problem. Yet despite economic stability and advances in technology, the five-day workweek remains the dominant concept in workplace organization.
Sopher says there’s reason to believe the two-day weekend is inefficient. He cites a growing body of research pointing to evidence that a shorter workweek would lead to increased productivity, improved health, and higher employee retention rates and says the five-day workweek may actually be hindering productivity.
He cites a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found individuals who worked 55 hours per week performed worse on some mental tests than those who only worked 40 hours per week.
The question is: Is the five day workweek so ingrained in our culture that it can’t be changed? Some companies already offer the option of Fridays off, but in many cases, employees still put in a 40-hour workweek; they simply work longer hours Monday through Thursday in order to reap the benefits of a three-day weekend.
Although the benefits of a shorter workweek are clear–improved morale and employee health not to mention attracting talent–Sopher says it’s unlikely companies will jump on the shorter workweek bandwagon simply because they would feel it would put their company at a competitive disadvantage against others who still operate on a five-day work schedule.
While it’s unlikely Keynes’s prediction will become reality by 2030, perhaps a different way of looking at how we organize our workweek is in order.