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published: 22 Feb 2024 in Work

Work smart, not hard. Can a four-day workweek actually… work?

Kamila Brzezińska
Kamila Brzezińska

Editor

In an era of technological advancements and work-life balance, the traditional 9-to-5, five days a week in the office is slowly becoming a thing of the past. A new concept has garnered significant attention – that of a four-day workweek. But with it, questions arise: what are its benefits, and, more importantly, has anyone ever attempted to actually make it work?
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The origins of the five-day workweek

You wake up, go to work, go home, and then go to sleep. Rinse a repeat day after day, from Monday to Friday.

We tend to think of a 40-hour, five-day workweek as a part of an established order of the world.

But in truth, the concept is relatively new.

Relatively – as it was popularized almost a hundred years ago when back in 1926 Henry Ford adopted this policy in his Ford Motor Company plants.

But before go praising Ford for his pro-employee initiatives – he also almost doubled the wages of his workers, raising it to a minimum of 5 dollars a week – it’s worth remembering that the prosperity of his workers was not his sole goal. He had a personal interest in ensuring that the middle class, and thus, his workers included, had money and time to spend on his Ford T’s and A’s. And, with high wages and reasonable working time, working for Ford plants became something of a coveted position. Said reputation increased employee retention, and that had a positive impact on the overall production cost, as the company didn’t have to spend money on training a new crew.

Henry Ford was many things: a pioneer, an entrepreneur, and, allegedly, an anti-Semite and Hitler’s role model – but an altruist, he was not.


How much did we use to work before that?

But before the 1930s and the five-day workweek model, there was little official data on how much time people spent working. But with the little information we have, we know that people worked – and they worked a lot.

At the end of the 19th century, when the US government first started tracking working hours in the manufacturing sectors, an average employee clocked 100 hours a week! The full-time position had a literal meaning, back then.

Nowadays, people in Poland work significantly (60 hours!) less – 40,4 hours a week, according to Eurostat data – but even this result is considered to be over the average working time in the EU, which is a little over 37,5 hours a week.


Four-Day Workweek in the 1960s-1970s

Even though the idea of a Four--Day workweek only recently has become a hot conversational topic in the media, the first attempts at implementing this model date back to the 60s and 70s. During that time, several companies attempted to compress 40 hours of work into four days. Unfortunately, the results back then left a lot to be desired: the fatigue an employee felt by the end of a prolonged day at the office adversely affected the speed and quality of the work. What is more, longer working hours decreased employee engagement, and often resulted in an increased number of errors, and even work injuries.

Given the results, the initiative of a four-day workweek was quickly put on a shelf.

And there it remained until recently.


Modern attempts

With the benefits of hindsight, as well as modern technology allowing for asynchronous work, we can see clearly why the first experiments with a four-day workweek were doomed to fail. As our productivity diminishes the longer we work, prolonged working hours were not the right approach to take.

But it’s the approach, and not the concept itself, that seems to be at fault. Therefore, it’s little wonder that the idea of a four-day long week goes through a renaissance of sorts.

In the UK, 61 companies and organizations took place in an experiment with a 20% reduction in working hours for all employees. Similar trials were also conducted in other countries, such as Austria or Belgium. Recently, a Polish pharmaceutical company Herbapol announced that in 2025 it plans to implement a four-day workweek for its employees.


The most complex research and its results

However, the most complex and long-term research on this was done by a „4 Day Week Global” Organization. During an 18-month-long trial, numerous organizations from the USA, Canada, UK, and Ireland worked in a four-day workweek model. The first results were visible after the first six months: according to the data, employees experienced less burnout, as well as improved overall job satisfaction and, in some cases, even health. Additionally, less time working involves less commute, and thus, reduced environmental pollution.

Moreover, the study found that the longer people worked in a four-day workweek model, the shorter their said weeks could become without impacting efficiency and productivity. The data indicates that a reduction of even 5 hours can be achieved, as workers were able to accomplish as much in a 33-hour workweek as they can in 38 hours.

Sometimes, less is more, indeed.


Sources:

Eurostat – “How much time per week do Europeans usually work?”

Forbes – “The Story of Henry Ford's $5 a Day Wages: It's Not What You Think”

TVN24 – “Polska firma farmaceutyczna wdraża czterodniowy tydzień pracy”

World Economic Forum – “Four-day work week trial in Spain leads to healthier workers, less pollution”

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