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In the 1930s, influential British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would become so advanced by the time his grandchildren were grown that we would all enjoy a 15-hour work week. The ensuing decades have proven his prediction to be spectacularly wrong. Workers in most developed nations still work around 40 hours a week, even more in some nations.
In response, a movement in support of a four-day work week has gained traction around the world. A number of U.S. firms have experimented with it and some labor unions are championing the idea. A financial firm in New Zealand was so pleased with the results of a trial that they adopted the policy full-time. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom is considering making a four-day week part of its platform. Several other European countries have taken steps to reduce the work hours of their citizens.
The specifics of how a four-day work week functions varies. Some firms limit workers to 32 hours a week without cutting their pay. Others have employees do four 10-hour days. All employees can be given the same day off, typically Friday, or staff members may stagger their free days.
Why there’s debate:
There’s significant evidence that the modern economy is overly hard on workers. People actually get more done in less time if they’re feeling less stressed and more rested. The policy could also help unemployment by creating opportunities for part-time workers to take on the leftover hours.
Proponents have also pointed to potential side benefits, like decreased environmental impact with one less day of commuters on the road. Some employees at firms that have tried a four-day work week have put their extra time toward activities like volunteering or helping in their communities.
Skeptics of the idea argue that a four-day work week would create more stress for workers who may be asked to accomplish the same amount of work in fewer hours. Others say it would be expensive for businesses, who might respond by cutting other benefits, trimming salaries or laying off people to cut costs.
A four-day work week, some argue, is unfeasible in those industries that require staff throughout the week. Others say it should be up to individual companies, rather than governments, to decide on working hours.
While a few companies in the United States are trying out a four-day work week, a broad push is unlikely anytime soon. The policy is not currently part of the platform of any of the nation's prominent progressive parties. In the United Kingdom, Labour may soon back off its push, as well. Last week, a report commissioned by the party found that while limiting work hours is a worthwhile goal, a government-mandated four-day work week would be unrealistic and counterproductive.
Happier workers are more productive.
“Increases in productivity likely go hand-in-hand with a more engaged workforce that feels healthier and less stressed. Certainly, the links between long working hours and elevated staff absence rates – both for mental and physical health problems – are well established.”
— David Prosser, Forbes
Shortening the work week is a fresh way for workers to exercise their collective power.
“Typically, critics of capitalism have called for redistributing the wealth it produces through higher taxes, government programs and a higher minimum wage. At least in theory, cutting working hours is another method of addressing the same problem — the unequal results of economic growth — but by reallocating time to workers, rather than money."
— Jeff Stein, Washington Post
A shorter work week would have broad mental and physical health benefits.
“If we all worked a four-day week, there’s good reason to assume that life expectancy, inequality and education scores could all go up.” — Tim Smedley, BBC
A four-day week would be good for the environment.
“The exact magnitude of that reduction is unclear, but the research seems to point in the same direction: lowering the number of hours we work would help to reduce our impact on the environment.” — Andre Spicer, The Guardian
A shorter week would help address gender inequality.
“Many have argued for the four-day workweek, or flexible hours in general, as a way to retain talented female workers who might otherwise quit altogether in order to have children.”
— Peggy Drexler, CNN
The change would compel workers to avoid time-wasting practices that plague modern offices.
“Researchers said a shorter workweek motivated employees to find ways of increasing their productivity while in the office, like cutting meetings down to 30 minutes, and telling colleagues when they were being a distraction.” — Nicole Lyn Pesce, Marketwatch
Rested employees do better work.
“If you reduce work hours, people are able to focus their attention more effectively, they end up producing just as much, often with higher quality and creativity, and they are also more loyal to the organizations that are willing to give them the flexibility to care about their lives outside of work.” — Psychologist Adam Grant to Ladders
A shorter week would create opportunity for others to work.
“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." — Penn State economics professor Lonnie Golden to Salon
Workers are hesitant to appear lazy.
“Workers too have reservations. Nearly half (45%) of those we surveyed worried that spending less time at work would make colleagues think they’re lazy. This suggests there is a paradox in how employees perceive the practice: They want it implemented but are afraid to engage with it as first movers.” — Ben Laker and Thomas Roulet, Harvard Business Review
Cutting working hours could lead to lower salaries.
“Critics warn the push for a four-day week could backfire with unintended consequences for workers, including by cutting their pay through shorter hours.” — Jeff Stein, Washington Post
Many workers would face even more stress.
“Shortening the working week could actually have the opposite effect, creating more pressure by cramming five days’ worth of work into four.” — Adrian Moorhouse, City A.M.
There are major logistical limits.
“Regulations for salaried and hourly paid workers, industry-specific challenges, and the 24/7 demands of clients and customers all make it unlikely that the practice will spread beyond pockets in smaller companies or within organizations.” — Jena McGregor, Washington Post
The productivity benefits are overstated.
“Working less may be linked to higher productivity (on a per-hour basis), but overall output could still fall because of the smaller number of hours worked.” — The Economist
It would only work for certain types of companies.
“If you’re in industries like fishing, logistics and construction where you simply have to spend extensive amounts of time in the field, it’s not a model that’s likely to fit.” — Federation of Small Business Chairman Mike Cherry to Yahoo Finance U.K.
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images