As we reinvent work in the post-pandemic world, can we see finally see the benefits of a shorter workweek?
Americans work harder than their counterparts in most of the world’s developed economies, clocking in an average of 34.4 hours per week. Many adults work even longer, with most American reporting an average of 47 hours of work per week (or nearly six working days per week). Almost four in ten American workers log 50 hours or more.
Those extra hours aren’t helping us perform better. Conversely, those additional hours on the clock actually cost us productivity, health, and happiness.
It’s time to work smarter, not harder. It’s time to cut down the working week.
Here’s why a shorter workweek is better for us.
The Success of Less in Other Countries
Many employers cry foul at the suggestion of shortening workweeks. Typically, they rely on the argument that shortening the workweek will cost productivity. But if you look at the data from the other largest economies in the world, shorter workweeks make a positive difference.
European countries have bought into the idea of a shorter workweek for decades. Scandinavian countries have long been advocates of shortening the working week (the average Danish employee logs 33 hours a week).
It’s no coincidence that Scandinavian countries consistently rank among the happiest in the world. It’s all about work-life balance.
Productivity vs. Burnout
In the work-life balance equation, Americans often favor work over life and take balance entirely out of the equation. We say that we emphasize productivity. But the reality is Americans seem to prioritize, and even take great pride in, being busy.
In reality, we’re not driving toward greater productivity. We’re driving toward burnout.
The presumption that more work means more productivity is a fallacy. According to a study of how athletes and musicians train, individuals only have a limited amount of concentration-time per day–about four to five hours. After that, you experience diminishing returns with every subsequent hour.
In translation? A longer workday doesn’t create more productivity. Forcing people to grind through extra hours pushes someone toward burnout. The same is true of a long workweek.
There are some exceptions, like delivery drivers or grocery store clerks. In those cases, a four-hour work period won’t sufficiently replace eight hours. But in most other positions, workers are not getting any added mileage from those four extra hours.
The 4-Day Workweek Experiment
To understand why, look to Microsoft Japan. The company tried a bold experiment: four-day workweeks, with three-day weekends every week, while still providing employees a five-day paycheck. The result? A 40% increase in productivity.
Cutting a whole workday out of the week (and losing eight hours from the usual workweek) required the company to do some streamlining. Time management became a priority. The company assisted in this process by cutting the standard meeting duration from an hour to thirty minutes and cutting standard attendance down to a five-employee maximum.
But the productivity boost came from a change in how employees work.
Shorter Workweeks Mean Better Prioritization
Because the Microsoft Japan employees no longer had a full day, they had to hyper-prioritize and cut out low-value activities, like bloated meetings, dawdling on social media, and less time on administrative filler work. This allowed more space for the most critical tasks, but it also allowed more space for creativity.
That said, the three-day weekend had to be an actual weekend. Otherwise, employees wouldn’t see any real benefit from an added day off and would instead work from home. Unfortunately, many of the technologies that have simplified working from home have also damaged work-life balance.
But when you tell people to unplug – actually unplug, meaning phones off and no email checks – employees get a real break after their hyper-prioritized, streamlined week. This offers them enough time to hit reset and return to work refreshed, ready to turn on hyper focus once again.
People Who Need Shorter Work Weeks
Of course, the company isn’t the only beneficiary of the shorter workweek. Employees clearly gain from such policies, and their benefits translate directly into positive results for their employers.
Think of it this way: employees are the backbone of your work. Without them, your company couldn’t get anything done. And if your employees are too fried to work effectively, they’re not going to do an outstanding job. Ultimately, the employee and the company suffer. Well-rested employees, though, are ready to give their all – and they’re more likely to be committed and engaged if they feel their company cares about them.
That said, thinking about a shorter workweek purely in terms of the number of hours worked is limiting. In reality, what happens outside the workplace is just as important as what happens inside. This is the space where employees go to rest, have fun, and feel refreshed. It’s also when employees do, well, pretty much anything that isn’t their job.
The time away isn’t being out of the office. It is time away from the stress of the job. And many segments of our society benefit.
When you’re a working parent, you have two full-time jobs: your job and parenting. Prioritizing work to support your family means sacrificing essential time with your kids, all while losing productivity due to stress and overwork. In fact, a quarter of parents – the hardest workers of all – spend only 34 minutes a day with their children. Quality time goes up on the weekends, but that leaves parents stringing time together from one weekend to the next.
And in the meantime, parents pay a premium for childcare. They also have to scramble for anything that might happen during the workweek, like doctor’s appointments, parent-teacher meetings, and youth sports. And if something happens to conflict? Welcome to even more work-related stress.
Cutting a day out of the workweek gives parents essential time to bond with and support their kids. Plus, reduced stress and reduced childcare costs allow parents to focus on more on work when they’re at work. Done right, they can also focus more on their children while at home.
That translates to healthier families, happier parents, and more productive, balanced employees.
Entrepreneurs and creative people are the ones who come up with ideas that change our everyday lives for the better. But to develop those ideas and nurture them, entrepreneurs need time to pursue their side projects.
That just isn’t possible in the usual five-day grind.
By eliminating an extra day, entrepreneurs can dedicate all their attention to work while they’re at work. And when the workweek is over, they can shift gears and focus entirely on their passion project. This time away enables more time to get a good idea off the ground.
Anyone Who Wants to Thrive Instead of Grind
Ultimately, though, this is a model made for employees who want to thrive, not grind.
The truth is, employees want more from their job than just a paycheck. They want a good fit inside a positive culture. They want an opportunity to grow and the flexibility to work in a way that allows them to succeed – at work and away from work.
Instead, employers too often give them is a five-day 9-to-5 grind – often for no other reason than “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” They could do so much more.
The Shorter Workweek: Let’s Work Smarter
Isn’t it time to work smarter instead of working yourself into the ground?
Ultimately, a shorter workweek isn’t just a nice perk – it’s a job benefit for employees and a competitive advantage for companies. It’s time to change the workweek for the better. It’s time to find success in less.