Ever since German sociologist Max Weber penned his classic 1905 book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the Western World has accepted that Calvinist-influenced societies tend to associate hard work with both virtue and material success. According to this pervasive mode of thinking, there is no such thing as “too much work.” Cultures like ours take it for granted that if a human being works as hard as possible, stays frugal, and exercises discipline so as to minimize (if not entirely avoid) life’s frivolities, they will enrich both society and themselves.
“The vast majority of companies were also satisfied that business performance and productivity were maintained.”
Yet a new study from the University of Cambridge undermines this philosophy with an intriguing new finding about 4-day work weeks: Not do shorter work weeks make employees happier, but productivity does not drop one bit.
Social scientists at the prestigious university analyzed data from 61 companies that reduced their work weeks from 5-day durations to 4-day durations, assessing how those alterations impacted both their personal well-being and their business’ success. In terms of happiness, 71% of employees said they felt less “burnout” than previously and 39% also said they felt less “stressed” than they had during a 5-day work week. Sick day requests dropped by almost two-thirds as well.
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“There’s a wealth of evidence that individual health suffers with long hours, and is improved with shortened hours, though it depends on timing, rest breaks, days for recovery, choice over schedules, etc.”
Yet rugged individualists will be disappointed if they hope that the drop in work quantity led to a drop in work quality. As their report to British lawmakers establishes, the companies revenues did not seem to alter significantly at all during the six-month trial period in which these new policies were enacted. Among the 23 companies that provided data, there was actually a slight increase in revenues — an average uptick of 1.4%, in fact. Eighteen of the companies are creating permanent 4-day work weeks, while only 3 are entirely pausing the program. Overall business leaders were just as satisfied with the program as their employees; when asked to rate the 6-month period with a 4-day work week on a scale from 0 to 10 (with 10 being the highest possible score), the companies gave an average final mark of 8.3.
“The vast majority of companies were also satisfied that business performance and productivity were maintained,” the authors add. They gave average scores of 7.5 to questions about their companies’ productivity and their companies’ overall performance during this period.
Perhaps most striking to anyone who envisions office life as filled with sickly laborers struggling miserably under bright fluorescent lights, it turned out that workers’ overall health improved with a 4-day work week — to their companies’ financial benefit. The authors point to how the average mental health score, measured on a scale from 1 to 5, skyrocketed from 2.95 to 3.32 within the six-month period, while more than half employees reported a drop in negative emotions. As employees become emotionally happier and improve their sleep quality (another benefit of a 4-day work week), they become healthier overall.
“It is also encouraging to see that participants reported slight improvements in their physical health,” the authors explain. “With 37% of employees reporting improvements in physical health (versus 18% decreases), the study suggests that a four-day work week has the potential to reduce costs associated with health care.”
This is not the first time experts — and politicians — have touted the benefits of a 4-day work week.
“There’s a wealth of evidence that individual health suffers with long hours, and is improved with shortened hours, though it depends on timing, rest breaks, days for recovery, choice over schedules, etc.,” Lonnie Golden, Ph.D., Professor of Economics and Labor-Employment Relations at Penn State University, Abington College, told Salon last year. “It benefits the economy under one key condition: that the hours reduced among the full-timers goes to the underemployed who are seeking more hours — that is, the work foregone is somehow, someway, shifted to those who are willing to be able to work more hours.”
Senator Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt), a stalwart advocate for pro-worker policies, also hawked the findings of this new study.
“With exploding technology and increased worker productivity, it’s time to move toward a four-day work week with no loss of pay. Workers must benefit from technology, not just corporate CEOs,” the senator wrote on Twitter.
Americans rank 11 out of 33 among developed countries in the number of hours they work each week — below nations with fewer average working hours like Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.
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