A friend of mine has a personal mantra for the pandemic: desperate times call for desperate pleasures.
In times of prolonged stress, we need to be even more diligent about carving out time and space for wellbeing, not as a matter of leisure, but as a matter of survival—and these are stressful times indeed.
At Humu, the behavioral change startup where I work, we’ve seen just how much the anxiety, prolonged isolation, and uncertainty of the past year has affected employees. We work with Fortune 500 organizations across industries—including telecommunications, financial services, technology, and life sciences—to help leaders give their people the exact support they need to thrive at work. Across all of our customers, the top challenges since COVID hit have been related to combating burnout: leaders are looking for ways to improve emotional support in a virtual environment, while employees are asking for help striking a better work-life balance, coping with unparalleled uncertainty, and investing in their own resilience.
Our team faced similar challenges. “The pandemic hit Humu hard,” said our CEO Laszlo Bock. “We saw that people were stressed by child care, elder care, even pet care. On top of that, even getting through mundane activities like grocery shopping became a source of stress.” So, in the spirit of our mission to make work better, we took a radical step—we decided to give our team every other Friday off. Here’s how we got there, and how it’s worked out so far:
It was the right thing to do
“During especially difficult times, work should be a place of solace, not a source of additional stress,” Bock told me.
There are lots of good business reasons for a company to treat workers well, but more than anything, creating compassionate policies is the right thing to do. Employers have a real opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their employees—that support can amount to a 23% and 17% increase in workers who report better mental and physical health, respectively.
“We decided to give our teams every other Friday off—an extra 26 days off per year—because it felt right,” Bock explained. “We needed to care for our people.”
Rested workers are better workers
The pandemic has underscored the need for employers to offer flexibility: 96% of employees say they need it, compared with only 47% who say they have it. But what is the business impact of adopting alternative work schedules?
Of the minority of companies who have implemented a four-day workweek, most have actually seen an increase in productivity, due to less time spent in meetings.
A four-day-workweek experiment by Microsoft in Japan saw a boost in productivity of 40%, citing happier, better-rested workers with less need for paid time off.
The need for alternative schedules came into sharp focus as the pandemic saw nearly one in two workers suddenly working from home. At Humu we found that the best leaders in the crisis were those that offered people the emotional support and flexibility they needed from week-to-week.
“It’s harder than ever to detach from work. But the research is clear, people who are unable to detach from work and explore other interests or activities become more emotionally exhausted over time,” says Tom Skiba, Ph.D, Humu Head of Business Transformation Solutions. “People who have time to disconnect come back more positive and engaged.”
Preventing burnout will be especially key for organizations when the pandemic ends. “Most organizations are seeing lifts in productivity from all this extra time working,” says Molly Sands, Ph.D, a Solutions Lead at Humu. “But, burnout is at an all time high, and as the pandemic ends and the economy recovers, that is likely to be costly for organizations.”
Well-being increased, while burnout decreased
Employees have diverse preferences about how to use the time.
Software engineer Kevin uses the time to go on a long hike, while Marieke McCloskey, a user researcher, finds the days off useful for nonessential career-related tasks, like preparing conference talks. Employees allocate the time for whatever their schedules and lifestyles require.
Humu is already seeing the benefits to employee well-being. “The results have been remarkable,” said Annie Wickman, VP of Operations and People. “Without sacrificing productivity, we’ve seen huge increases in satisfaction at Humu due to these days off.”
Our team became more innovative and productive
A day off provides precious time for care-taking, wellness, and household duties, but it’s also proven indispensable for something else: work.
“We had already implemented ‘no meeting Friday afternoons’ so that people had down-time to get work done,” says Bock. “But it wasn’t enough”: 71% of workers experienced burnout in 2020, and Humu was not immune to the stressful year.
Work about work—coordination, admin, etc.—still consumes about 60% of the work day. A day free of meetings and distracting messages provides those golden few hours of “heads-down” time, the hard-to-come-by space where highly-skilled, deep thinking is possible.
At Humu, the result of this has been a surge in productivity. “This benefit has been cited by team members time and again as the ‘best benefit I’ve ever had,’ and ‘key to productivity’,” Wickman said.
Nobody doubted that alternate four-day weeks would be good for morale. But it’s also made us more focused and effective, and better able to weather the crisis.
Jake Goldwasser is a localization expert at Humu, a company whose mission is to make work better. He leads a team of translators and content specialists who craft nudges (short, science-backed recommendations) that make it easy for organizations to improve.