“Shorter weeks can be a major contributor to making employees happier and more productive, and, therefore, making businesses more profitable,” says Joe O’Connor, Director of Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence​ and former CEO of 4 Day Week Global.

Happier, healthier, more productive – Is a four-day week the solution for burnout-infested workplaces?

The Great Resignation, employee shortages, talent retention, burn-out – these are the signs of times in many Western economies.

Finland is no different. According to a survey by the Finnish Chamber of Commerce member companies, around 70% of businesses face a shortage or severe shortage of skilled labour. As many as 73% of companies said that the availability of labour was a constraint on their company's growth and business development.  In the same vein, Technology Industries Finland has stated that technology companies need 130 000 new recruits over the next ten years. This means that the competition for talent is fiercer than ever.

At the same time, those employed are often tired or burnt out. According to the Finnish Social Insurance Institution Kela statistics, mental health disorders account for more than a third of work absenteeism. According to the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, around a quarter of the population suffers from at least a mild burnout and the figures are on the rise.

So, employers are faced with two problems: trying to find new talents while trying to make it enjoyable for the people already in the company. How can companies make sure that they are able to hold on to their employees in the current turmoil?

Is four-day week the silver bullet for a better working life?

Joe O’Connor, Director of Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence​ and former CEO of 4 Day Week Global, seems to think so.

The reason? “Shorter weeks can be a major contributor to making employees happier and more productive, and, therefore, making businesses more profitable,” O´Connor says.

In 2022, 4 Day Week Global, the non-profit advocacy organization, launched a series of six-month trials for companies in Ireland, the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The UK pilot is the world's largest trial of a four-day week to date.

46 per cent of the businesses taking part in the UK trial said their productivity had remained around the same level, and 34 per cent said it had improved slightly, while 15 per cent said it had improved significantly.

“According to the research conducted on the trials, shorter work weeks resulted in increased productivity, well-being, and employee morale, as well as better talent attraction and retention. For example, in one of the companies taking part in the pilot, the number of applications to open positions increased 500 per cent and retention rates improved significantly. The company previously struggled with both and had an especially hard time holding on to employees,” O’Connor says.

According to O’Connor, the increased retention and resulting cost-savings in recruitment and onboarding in companies can be so significant, that some companies are content with not maintaining a pre-pilot productivity-level in exchange for lower health care costs, less resignations and increased talent attraction.

A question hovers in the air: Is it for everyone and what about the resulting pay cuts in lower salary industries? “The four-day week model that we promote is a reduction in the work week from a standard 40 hours to 32 hours for the same pay and benefits. How this is organized can look different in different industries, even within one company with multiple departments which may have differing needs for organizing staff availability over the week,” O’Connor says.

The pilots, largely a success, have also revealed room for improvement.

“During the pilot projects, we found out that larger companies need more tailored help. The turn-around needs to be longer than six months, perhaps 12 to 24 months in total. Larger companies also need more tailoring to the system and the model may need to be implemented in different ways for different departments. For instance, for customer service it may not make sense to have everyone off on a Friday,” O’Connor says.

A great majority find the change worthwhile. “Close to 90 percent of the companies that undergo the pilot, plan to stick with the four-day work week,” O’Connor says.

That said, O´Connor reminds that the results are from a select group.

“The companies that take part in the pilot are already rather progressive and committed to the pilot.  Those that fail to stick with the change after the pilot, usually face external factors that come in between: change of leadership, change in the financial status of the company and so forth.”

A case for gender equality

The four-day week means a change for all workers and could in the process level the gender-playing field as a collateral benefit.

“Back when I was working for a trade union in Ireland, we did a survey among our members. Many women told us that while they do a four-day work week in name, the expectations and input remain the same – only that they are paid less. Having a universal four-day week could level the playing field. It is, therefore, a major career related gender equality question,” O’Connor says.

The distribution of unpaid work means that is mainly women who work part-time which often has an impact on women’s career progression and facilitates gender disparities in the workplace. Approximately 17 per cent of Finns work part-time, women significantly more often than men: one in five women work part-time, for men the figure is one in ten.

What is undeniable is that curiosity has been piqued and a four-day week is no more just a theoretical construct: in some countries, legislators have been putting things in motion.

In Finland, Prime Minister Marin pondered about the possibility of a four-day week early on in her term, but the discussion has since then become dormant.  In the UK, the bill to mandate a four-day workweek was debated in the House of Commons in October 2022.

To become law, the proposal has many hurdles to cross and is far from approval. However, it is an indication that the debate is gaining ground.


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