Best Practices in HR

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Aaron Carr
  October 27, 2018

Is a 4 Day Work Week the Secret to Productivity?

For 5 days of the week, many of us push our attention spans and cognitive functioning to the limit. We hold on by a thread, driving through our work hours until the weekend brings us a chance to briefly recover.

This lifestyle has not coined the name, “The 9-5 Grind” for no reason: Employees feel the imbalance. For some, work can be a haven, and putting in extra hours on top of a full time schedule is actually energizing. But, for those who need 8 hours of sleep and derive their relaxation from non-work related activities, the hustle takes a toll.

Regular overworking builds up stress, which can bring about a myriad of health concerns including restless sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. These consequences are obviously unpleasant for anyone, but the businesses employing depleted employees will see overwork manifested as absenteeism, high turnover rates, rising health insurance costs and a negatively impacted bottom line.

Wait, there is more.

Jobs which require interpersonal communication, judgement calls and the ability to manage one’s own emotional reactions are particularly impacted by overworking.¹ Unfortunately, those skills are all fundamental in most workplaces today.  What happens when we work ourselves to exhaustion? Studies indicate that when we’re low on energy, we are prone to negatively interpret those around us and react in a combative manner. This means that beyond individual health and company ROI, overworking disturbs workplace relationships and culture.

North American businesses in particular should concern themselves with the recent studies done on five-day work weeks; With 49% of US staff working over 40 hours a week, Americans work more than any other developed country (an average 47 hours a week) with Canada not far behind them.² Although heavily ingrained in work culture, the five-day work week is finally being questioned. Since its inception, the 9-5 has been socially accepted, but as technology allows employees to work in new ways, employers are adapting to fit the individual needs of their staff.³ The big question: Is it possible to be just as productive with less time in the office?

Improved Work Life Balance

Rapid advancements in technology have altered the work field; employees are only ever a click away from their office emails and chat platforms, meaning work follows everywhere cell reception can be found. It is harder than ever to disengage from work and work-life balance is suffering as a result. Our brains are not programmed to work efficiently when stress and exhaustion press down.

In a trial at the University of Auckland, researchers found that stress levels decreased from 45 percent to 38 percent in a four-day week while work-life balance improved by 24 percent. These kinds of results are not only seen in tests: Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, implements four-day work weeks for half of the year, noting that, “Better work gets done in four days than in five.”

When employees feel their non-stop laboring is a choice rather than an expectation, they are more likely to be engaged and passionate about their work. Four-day weeks enable employees to disengage, reset, and ultimately find their work more stimulating upon return to the office.

Improved Engagement

A study conducted by a New Zealand business confirmed a 4-day work week is actually more productive than a 5-day work week. During the course of the trial, not only was full-time job performance across the company maintained in a four-day work week, but some teams even saw an increase.  Engagement levels across areas such as leadership, commitment, stimulation, and empowerment were reportedly higher across the company, as team members needed to identify areas where time was being wasted and work smarter.

Again, in a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the same relationship between overworking and productivity was found; Those who worked 55 hours per week performed more poorly on some mental tasks than those who worked 40 hours per week.

When one first sets out as a professional, working evenings and weekends demonstrates commitment and sets you apart from the herd; but this is unsustainable! The social acceptability of overworking is the result of ingrained behaviours, which unfortunately detract from productivity.

Advice from businesses that have acted on these findings may help guide you in establishing a work-week structure that fits your company. Research from the Australian National University (ANU) shows the work limit for a healthy life should be set at 39 hours a week instead of the 48-hour limit set internationally- 80 years ago. With technology, telecommuting, and automation, the tools to develop new work systems are more accessible than ever.

Executive Director of The Workforce Institute at Kronos, Joyce Maroney suggests that the answer is not in a longer work week, but rather, “Organizations must help their people eliminate distractions, inefficiencies and administrative work to enable them to work at full capacity.” Perhaps the answer really is to end 40 hour work weeks and analyze internal obstacles which can be as “productivity-killing as smoking pot or losing sleep.”