If you’ve ever come back from a three-day weekend and wondered why you can’t have that time off every week—imagine if you could. Around the world, workers, politicians, and economists are asking why we can’t all afford an extra day off every week.
Recently the United Kingdom Trades Union Conference (TUC) laid out a platform for overhauling the entire structure of work and production in the UK to shorten the workweek. The idea, which the union frames as a workplace modernization, is a weekly schedule of about 32 hours that would give workers a fairer, freer work-life balance. Reduced worktime would also guard against the rising threats of displacement, extreme stress, and exploitation as the economic transitions wrought by technology and globalization threaten to displace or destabilize employment.
The UK workers’ demands are echoed in the experiment of Perpetual Guardian, an estate-planning firm in Auckland, New Zealand. Its 240-person staff shifted onto a four-day schedule (roughly 32 hours) for two months. Subsequent surveys indicate stress levels dropped from 45 percent to 38 percent. Workers’ sense of work-life balance rose from 54 to 78 percent. Similarly, the staff’s self-reported perceptions of “commitment,” “stimulation,” and “empowerment” also jumped during the trial.
Just as unions of yesteryear fought for generations to win a weekend and eight-hour day, labor advocates argue that in advanced economies today, both employers and workers have already earned a less-intense, reduced workweek. By lowering hours or adding days off—without sacrificing productivity and, as TUC proposes, “with no reduction to living standards”—labor could wrest some of the workday from capitalism’s grip, while yielding dividends not just for the economy but also for public health and the environment.
Overall, Perpetual Guardian staff found the shorter workweek opened meaningful opportunities both on and off the job. Workers reported, for instance, that by gaining a whole extra day, “I could be really productive in my volunteer work, because I can get so much done,” or they pursued educational programs, or freed up rest time to indulge in “headspace,” or saved money with reduced weekly childcare needs. Though there were some concerns about feeling pressure to do more work in less time, often collaborations were strengthened by the four-day week. “If I was learning someone else’s responsibilities then it’s equally they were learning mine,” one interviewee observed. “I didn’t think for a minute, I’m doing extra work. I was just thinking we’re helping each other.”