In June, more than 3,300 people in Britain embarked on an exciting experiment: Their employers had signed up to pilot a four-day workweek in what is currently the world’s biggest trial of this shorter working schedule. Seventy-three British companies have reduced their employees’ working hours by 20 percent for six months while still giving them their full pay.
Similar pilot programs are also underway in Australia, Iceland, Japan, and Spain. Some companies in the United States have taken the same step. One study found that more than 8 million US workers switched to a four-day schedule between 1973 and 2018.
So far, the evidence that’s rolling in points in a clear direction: A shorter week allows workers to better take care of themselves without sacrificing productivity.
Halfway through the six-month trial, all but two of the 41 British companies that responded to a survey said that productivity has either stayed the same or improved, and six said that productivity has significantly improved. Those findings track with others. In Iceland, where more than 1 percent of the workforce saw their hours reduced to 36 per week or less, productivity has stayed constant or improved. According to one study of individual businesses, about two-thirds of those with four-day workweeks said productivity has increased, and about half said it has saved them money. Job performance stayed the same during a trial at a New Zealand–based firm, and at Microsoft Japan productivity rose by 40 percent.
The effects on employees’ well-being are even more stunning. In Britain, workers putting in 32 hours a week have been getting an average of 7.58 hours of sleep a night, nearly a full hour more than those working 40 hours. And the share of those who would be classified as sleep-deprived dropped from around 43 percent to less than 15 percent. Since they don’t have to cram so much into each day, they no longer have to sacrifice sleep to get everything in their lives done.
Working fewer hours is proving to have other benefits for people’s bodies and minds. In Iceland, employees reported less stress and burnout and better health and work/life balance. They spent more time exercising, taking care of household chores, running errands, engaging in hobbies, and spending time with family and friends. As one participant put it, reducing hours “shows increased respect for the individual. That we are not just machines that just work…. We are persons with desires and private lives, families and hobbies.” In a Gallup survey of US workers, people who worked four days a week had higher levels of “thriving wellbeing” and lower rates of chronic burnout than those who worked five or six.
Despite the mounting evidence for the benefits of a four-day workweek, Americans overwhelmingly put in longer hours, frequently going past 40 per week. Nearly one-third of Americans work 45 hours or more a week, and about 8 million of us clock 60 or more.
Altering that picture for everyone—not just for white-collar employees at a handful of do-gooder companies—requires systemic change. It was only after decades of mass strikes that Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which forced employers to pay workers overtime if they put in more than 40 hours a week.
In Iceland, the pilot programs have been significantly expanded, with 86 percent of the workforce either already on a four-day schedule or set to take one up in the next few years. Why has it caught on so quickly there? One reason is that 90 percent of the country’s workers are unionized, and the labor movement has played a big role in pushing for the adoption of shorter schedules. By contrast, just 10.3 percent of American workers belong to a union.
One avenue for change is rewriting overtime rules. Some members of Congress have proposed changing the definition of a standard workweek under the Fair Labor Standards Act to 32 hours instead of 40. But because that law applies to only a fraction of workers—currently only 15 percent are covered—any workweek reform would have to be coupled with other changes. The Biden administration is reportedly working on a proposal to make it apply to more people.
Until things change, most Americans will risk exposure to, in the words of more than a dozen researchers, “the largest of any occupational risk factor calculated to date”—a long workweek.