Studies show a four day work week boosts productivity and keeps workers happier : The Indicator from Planet Money Doing more by working less sounds like an oxymoron, but a slew of recent studies show that switching to a four-day workweek is linked with greater health, happiness and productivity for workers.

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Test driving a four-day work week

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC'S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

PADDY HIRSCH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Paddy Hirsch.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

And I'm Wailin Wong. Americans have been working a five-day week with a two-day weekend since as far back as 1908. That's when a mill in New England decided to give its workers two days off to allow both its Jewish and Christian workers to observe their respective days of worship.

HIRSCH: And ever since then, the five-day week has been under siege. In 1928, the economist John Maynard Keynes declared that technological advancement would bring the workweek down to 15 hours within a century. A Senate subcommittee doubled down in 1965, predicting we'd only be working 14 hours by the year 2000.

WONG: The five-day workweek has weathered all of this, but thanks to the radical changes in workplace routines wrought by the pandemic, it's beginning to look increasingly threatened.

HIRSCH: Yes, a slew of studies have been examining the viability of a four-day workweek in Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Spain and even the United Kingdom, which, as you may remember from a recent INDICATOR episode, has been struggling with productivity for decades.

WONG: So on today's show, the four-day workweek - it's being touted as the key to greater happiness, better health and enhanced productivity.

HIRSCH: It's like a little blue pill for the economy.

WONG: Exactly. But is it all it's cracked up to be? We'll take a look at it after the break.

HIRSCH: This is actually a three-day week for us this week, isn't it, Wailin?

WONG: Yeah, I was thinking of making it a two-day workweek.

HIRSCH: Yeah, well, happy Thanksgiving.

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HIRSCH: This week I'm in the United Kingdom, which, since the beginning of June, has been undergoing the biggest trial of a four-day workweek ever conducted. Thirty-three hundred people are in the trial. Seventy-three companies - including financial companies, recruiting firms and even a fish and chip shop - have cut their employees' working hours to 32 hours a week while still paying them their full salary. Not surprisingly, the Brits that we spoke to in London love this idea.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Absolutely. Who wouldn't want a four-day workweek? Yeah, I would love one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think a four-day working week in the U.K. would be a great idea.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, I'd love to try it, see how it goes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: To be honest, I'd totally support it. If, depending on the work and the role, you can get through your work in, like, four days, then completely fine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: That would be lovely. Definitely.

WONG: The idea of going from a five-day work week to four days is not a new one. In fact, people have been talking about going to four or even three days a week since we first went to five days. Charlotte Lockhart is the founder and CEO of 4 Day Week, the company behind the pilot program. She says the pandemic has given the idea of a four-day week an entirely new focus.

CHARLOTTE LOCKHART: There's a real conversation around how you engage with your people to find a better way of working. The opportunity we have here is to completely reframe the workplace.

HIRSCH: The U.K. is an interesting place to attempt a reframe. For one thing, I can tell you from personal experience that Brits are every bit as bad as Americans when it comes to failing to achieve work-life balance.

WONG: For another, the U.K. has recently become notorious for its poor productivity, with the second-lowest productivity growth rate in the G-7 group of wealthy nations.

HIRSCH: And it's this paradox that evangelists for the four-day workweek are aiming at. They say five eight-hour days are less productive than four for a variety of reasons. They lead to burnout. They encourage use of sick leave. They lead to increased turnover in jobs. They ignore the fact that most people in an eight-hour day are only productive about half of the time, if that.

LOCKHART: The statistics for the U.K. are actually that people are only productive for less than three hours a day. Now, that of course is a general statistic. There'll be plenty of people that say, no, no, our business is busy. But what's the difference between busyness and productivity? And how do we provide what we do in a more efficient way? There is clear evidence around the world that if you reduce work time, you increase productivity.

HIRSCH: Productivity, the magic formula of doing more with less - and the data from a slew of studies supports the thesis that reducing work time can make people more productive. Studies in Japan, in New Zealand, in the U.K. and in Iceland found that working fewer hours also improves workers' health and wellbeing, reduces stress and burnout, and ups the hours that people sleep, which of course makes everything better.

WONG: Not all of the data from the U.K. trial is out yet, but 86% of the companies in the program say they are likely to stick with a four-day week. That could go a long way to convincing other corporations, most of whom have one big problem with the idea. Esme Terry is a research fellow at the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre in the United Kingdom.

ESME TERRY: Paying 100% salary for 80% workload seems to a lot of corporations like, why on earth would we do that?

HIRSCH: Esme agrees with Charlotte Lockhart that working fewer hours at a stretch can make us more healthy and happy and therefore hopefully more productive. But she's not convinced that a four-day week is necessarily the best way to achieve those ends. And by the way, what do we actually mean by a four-day week?

TERRY: There are multiple different models that are termed a four-day week. So, for example, some organizations have condensed hours, so the number of working hours isn't actually reduced.

WONG: In other words, you do 40 hours of work, but over four days instead of five. Another question is, how do different sectors handle a reduced working week, such as businesses that require 24-hour coverage? And what about the prospect of reduced pay? This is where the Londoners we spoke to had reservations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I'm in customer service, so we do have to cover five days a week. And if we did shifts where it was sort of split across the week, everybody took turns, it could work. But I'm not sure if it could be a set four-day week necessarily.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If you're on a salary, that would be a perfect thing. But I'm not sure how that would work in contrast with retail workers or people who work hourly shifts.

WONG: All of the people we spoke to agree that the modern workplace needs shaking up and that the pandemic created an opening for reformers. For Esme Terry at the Digital Futures of Work Research Centre, though, the opportunity lies more in the approach to work generally rather than the specifics of time spent on the clock.

TERRY: If we can be less prescriptive or employers can be less prescriptive about working hours and potentially place more trust in their employees to manage their own working time, then that's likely to have benefits.

HIRSCH: Trust - that's a tough one for a lot of corporations and the middle managers that administer them. It requires that they relinquish control and take a leap of faith. But Esme says that's essential to a new paradigm that we're seeing in employee-employer relations. Companies need to give workers flexibility, need to give them more autonomy, not least because a lot of people value those perks more than they value time off work.

TERRY: It's corporations thinking not just about the bottom line but thinking about - to be a modern employer who doesn't just pay lip service to working time and working pattern changes and can implement something that actually employees see real work-life balance benefit from.

WONG: Esme says there's no reason that a four-day week couldn't be part of that new paradigm, and she agrees that it's high time for a change. She just wants to think bigger.

TERRY: The eight-hour, five-day week working time model is less than a hundred years old. And of course, it's a question of, well, are there more radical changes to working time that are possible?

HIRSCH: 4 Day Week's CEO Charlotte Lockhart says she's all about making radical changes, too. Her U.K. trial is aimed at spurring companies to ask big questions that will hopefully generate some productive answers.

LOCKHART: What is the way that we can achieve this while still achieving incomes that matter and outcomes that matter? Somebody has to be bold and say, I'm prepared to take the chance.

HIRSCH: For her, the four-day working week is just a place to start.

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WONG: This episode was produced by Nicky Ouellet with help from Morgan Ayre in London. Engineering by Robert Rodriguez. Dylan Sloan checked the facts. Our senior producer is Viet Le. Kate Concannon edits the show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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HIRSCH: Hey, Wailin, let me ask you, do you think there's any chance that THE INDICATOR could go to a four-day week?

WONG: Oh, well, now that you've said it on the air, we have to do it.

HIRSCH: Let's get the editor into this conversation.

WONG: We could just do it and see what happens.

HIRSCH: That's a great idea. That's what I call autonomy, frankly.

WONG: Right? One person's quiet quitting is another person's four-day workweek.

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