The traditional five-day, forty-hour work week is being challenged. New trends favor the four-day, thirty-two-hour work week, mostly in white collar and high-tech fields. The tradeoff involved is that workers get the same pay for putting in 80% as much time in exchange for delivering 100% of their usual output. Whether these trends will take hold and gradually become common for much or all the labor force is the question of the day. Historically, people typically worked more than eight hours per day, especially during the period of the Industrial Revolution from 1760 to about 1840.
Unlike today, workers during the Industrial Revolution were expected to work long hours or they would lose their jobs. Many workers had to work 12 hour days, six days a week. They didn't get time off or vacations. If they got sick or were injured on the job and missed work, they were often fired.1
In response to labor unrest, President Ulysses S Grant, in 1869 issued the National Eight Hour Law, formally codifying the eight-hour day. Of course, many people still worked five, six, or seven days a week. After researching factors affecting productivity, Henry Ford, in 1926, determined that his workers were more productive when they worked 5 days a week, 8 hours per day. He therefore instituted this regime and many other companies followed suit. Years later, in 1938, the “Fair Labor Standards Act” was amended to formalize a standard 40-hour workweek for the nation.
What does this history lesson tell us? We see the glacial pace of change in the norms of industry. While inertia is hard to overcome, the pressure for change is remorseless. Signs are out there that cracks are developing in the forty-hour work week. An excellent article by Andy Medici of The Playbook, presented results of a recent study2 in the UK that reviewed data from 61 companies and 2900 workers and found that turnover dropped by 57% and revenue rose by 1.4% during the trial period. Surveys found that 39% of workers were less stressed and 71% had reduced burnout. More than half said the four-day workweek made it easier to balance work and household chores. As a side note, 15% of the workers said that “no amount of money would convince them to leave an employer with a four-day workweek.” Of the companies studied, 92% of them plan to convert to the four-day workweek.
In the current tight labor market, employers struggle to find ways to find and retain good workers. A four-day workweek can be one of the benefits they offer. Bonus half or full-day Fridays off are commonly used by many employers to keep their workers happy. A competing work arrangement could likely impede somewhat the trend to a four-day, 32-hour workweek, as noted by Andy in a poll that found that “about 82% of full-time American workers would trade in their traditional five-day workweek for … four, 10-hour days … for the same pay.”3 Some jobs which require full on-site attendance or need to be physically open, such as restaurants, retail, and hospitality, would have to hire additional employees and would not benefit from this work model. Also, given the normal ebb and flow of the economy the brakes may be put on the move to a four-day work week when the business cycle again favors the employer over the employee.
Workers in the “gig” economy are already working a self-imposed four-day workweek, or maybe less than that! Many of these jobs, that allow for this flexibility, are high-tech, white-collar, and specialty gig work such as Uber drivers. Often these workers find themselves in high demand and can “write their own ticket” regarding work schedules, with employers happy to have the help. In other fields where this flexibility is lacking workers are pretty much resigned to following the dictates of the employer.
What does the future hold? Trends are likely to continue to creep towards more flexible work arrangements with more firms adjusting their work schedules to accommodate workers’ needs. We are no doubt a long way off from a federally mandated four-day workweek, but the practice will continue to gain adherents and will continue to be accepted in more and more industries. If history is any guide, the long game goes to the four-day workweek! In the meantime let’s strive to implement systems and processes and methods that make sense and improve our nation’s productivity and our workers’ lives and let’s continue to ponder THE FOUR DAY WORKWEEK: CAN IT WORK?
2 Lewsey, Fred. “Would you prefer a four-day working week?” University of Cambridge, February 21, 2023.
3 Maru Public Opinion, The Business Journals, 2022.