'They’re getting burnt out:' High demand for four-day work weeks is coming to United States businesses
Four-day work weeks, and even three-day work weeks, have been debated since the inception of the American weekend, but America has never seriously approached it. The COVID-19 pandemic, which still rages on with the discovery of the new Omicron variant, thrust people into isolation in the early months of 2020, and Americans have learned a lot about their work habits.
American car mogul Henry Ford famously made Saturday and Sunday days off for his staff as early as 1926, and as such has been credited as the de facto inventor of the five-day American work week.
Four-day work weeks, and even three-day work weeks, have been debated since the inception of the American weekend, but the U.S. has never seriously approached it. The COVID-19 pandemic, which still rages on with the discovery of the new Omicron variant, thrust people into isolation in the early months of 2020, and Americans have learned a lot about their work habits.
“I think there’s lots of opportunity for it,” Dusty Hillebrand, Grand Forks workforce center manager at North Dakota Job Service, said. “One of the things that we’re hearing out of COVID is that it’s a very high burnout rate for some of these folks because they’ve been working so many hours in some of these industries. They’re getting burnt out.”
While no businesses in Grand Forks with experimenting with a four-day work week could be found, Hillebrand said trying it even briefly could possibly reduce the effects of the labor shortage in Grand Forks.
"What if your company was doing 32-hour work weeks while the industry standard is a 40-hour work week five days a week," Hillebrand said. "You might be able to attract new talent to your company in the area for that simple fact alone, where it's a better work-life balance."
According to CNBC , the idea is gaining traction fast among American workers. It cites a poll from Eagle Hill Consulting, a Forbes-recognized management firm, stating 53% of U.S. employees polled said they are experiencing burnout, and women and younger workers are being hit the hardest at 56% and 62%.
Businesses are not the only entities to experiment with four-day weeks.
“Four-day school weeks aren’t anything new,” Hillebrand said. “There have been many school systems across the country that have gone to a four-day school week.”
More than 1,600 school districts have implemented four-day school weeks. However, According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the jury is still out on whether it helps, claiming study results are mixed. One Colorado study showed student improvements in math among children with a four-day school week. Another study showed no improvement. Oregon State University conducted a study showing a decline in grades from students with a four-day schedule, especially among minority, low-income and special needs students.
So, do the negative findings translate to four-day work weeks for employees?
Utah found it did when the state government began restricting its employees to 10-hour work days with three-day weekends in 2008. It lasted until 2011 when lawmakers halted it due to a legislative audit showing the experiment not saving as much money as hoped partially due to a drop in energy prices, as well as resident complaints about limited access to services on Fridays.
However, experiments across the world with international workers have resulted in findings that are quite the opposite.
“If you look at some of the other countries and some of the articles coming out of the other countries, what they’re finding is that folks are able to get their work done in that eight hours in four days instead of having to work that fifth (day),” Hillebrand said. “They’re concentrating more on their duties. Certain industries I think definitely see the benefit of that, of working a four-day work week.”
Microsoft Japan’s 2019 three-day weekend trial famously resulted in a 40% gain in productivity. The company also saved 23% on its overall electricity usage. Two trials in Iceland between 2015 and 2019 cut work weeks down to 35 hours without pay reduction for 2,500 workers and reported a “dramatic increase” in wellbeing without a decline in productivity. In 2021, Spain and Scotland began trials of four-day work weeks, and around 85% of all workers in Iceland have the option of a 4-day work week.
Hillebrand said a lot of the talk around the country about trying shorter work weeks came from the pandemic necessity of working from home entirely or utilizing hybrid work schedules. Some companies trying to transition back to in-person work weeks have faced backlash from their employees.
“You’re seeing a lot of pushback from employees that were working from home, and their companies are coming and (saying), ‘You need to be in the building. You need to be in the office now,’” Hillebrand said. “A lot of the folks are saying, ‘How come? We transitioned to home without an issue, and now we’re producing more from home, so why can’t we stay at home?’ And so, that’s just another thing. We don’t need these big buildings that we have all our folks in. We can work remotely and still be productive. Now, the next step, we can stay productive with 32-hour or four-day work weeks.”