Weekends are great but they never seem long enough. By the time we’ve relaxed on a Friday night, binged some Netflix and done some kind of socialising - albeit online - it’s Sunday night and we are having to mentally prepare for the following week.
Aside from the occasional bank holiday, three-day weekends are a pipedream for many of us. However, there is an increasing wealth of research that suggests longer weekends are the best way to boost our health, productivity and motivation. And some studies even suggest that traditional two-day weekends do more harm than good.
The weekend is a chance to catch up on sleep and relax, which often means lying in bed in the morning or staying up later. However, binge sleeping can have a knock-on effect on how we feel later in the week.
Studies suggest that two-day weekends disrupt the circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock that directs sleep cycles. When we catch up on missed sleep at the weekend, one study of adolescents found, just two days of lie-ins is enough to impact our circadian rhythm.
This has the potential to affect our mood and mental capabilities when we snap back our regular rhythm on a Monday morning, making us feel groggy, tired and irritable. With an extra weekend day, we have more time to sleep, relax and adjust for the week ahead.
On Mondays, the week ahead can look long and feel daunting. However, the idea of heading to work five days a week could soon be in the past. In November 2020, Unilever announced it would move staff in its New Zealand office to a four-day week on the same pay. Other companies have trialled shorter working weeks too, including Shake Shack, Microsoft Japan and Perpetual Guardian.
At face value, giving people long weekends every week may seem counterintuitive for employers. However, research in health, sleep, cognitive science, and organisational psychology overwhelmingly suggests that a shorter workweek should be the norm rather than a bank holiday exception.
The New Zealand financial services company Perpetual Guardian ran several studies alongside the transition. Although the 240-strong workforce was moved to a four-day week, their pay stayed the same. A study of the trial released found productivity increased in the four days they worked, with no fall in the total amount of work done.
Staff also reported feeling less stressed, as well as more empowered and committed. Overall, employees reported a 7% drop in stress levels, compared to a staff survey taken in 2017.
“When we started everybody’s initial reaction was, ‘How am I ever going to do my work in four days rather than five.’ So the fact that the trial indicates that not only could they do their work in four days, but they could do it better in four days, is something I find extraordinarily surprising,” Andrew Barnes, Perpetual Guardian’s founder, said in a statement.
Other studies have yielded similar results. In 2019, a study by academics at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford suggested a four day working week could employee happiness and boost productivity. Over six months, associate professor of economics and strategy Jan-Emmanuel De Neve studied the happiness and productivity of 5,000 call centre workers from 20 BT offices in the UK.
Workers were asked to rate their happiness every week on a scale from one to five, using a series of emojis. The results showed how a four day week was correlated with more positivity, an increased number of calls made, and a better quality of calls when customer satisfaction was measured. There were also fewer absences and more sales made.
“I would argue the four day working week is spot on in terms of finding or striking that right balance between improving the work-life balance and unlocking the happiness potential from that in terms of productivity gains,” De Neve told The Telegraph at the time. “This outweighs the net reduction in productivity from working a day less.”
Of course, giving employees a three-day weekend isn’t going to be a viable option for all businesses. But giving people greater flexibility could be the answer to a better work-life balance and reduced stress, as well as great productivity and motivation.