A couple of years ago, Sanna Marin, Finland’s prime minister, reportedly considered cutting down the work week in her country to just four six-hour days.
The news triggered much cheer on the internet amid the doom unleashed by the pandemic.
Alas, the fun didn’t last long. Finland soon clarified that ‘a four-day week isn’t on the agenda’ and ‘there hasn’t been any recent activity on the topic’.
In other words, it was fake news.
But what if the news were true? Would that have justified the enthusiasm with which it was greeted? My answer then was no. And it is no even today, when the four-day work week is enjoying something that could be labelled ‘the peak of inflated expectations’ on the Gartner Hype Cycle.
Not a new idea
To be sure, shortening the work week is not a new idea in high-income countries.
- In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances and productivity improvements would make it possible for people to work 15-hour weeks.
- As this BBC article points out: "In 1954, a German politician expressed excitement over the transition from a six-day work week to a five-day one: 'Once we have the free Saturday … we will have time to exercise; we will visit the cinema, theatre or circus; we will breed rabbits, take our motorbikes and scooters to the countryside, and tend to our allotment gardens.'"
- More recently, in 2018, New Zealand trust management company Perpetual Guardian trialled a four-day work week over two months for its 240 staff members.
- Microsoft Japan had the Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, giving its entire 2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row without decreasing pay. Both Perpetual Guardian and Microsoft reported heartening results.
In the post-pandemic world, the four-day work week has gained unprecedented traction as a cure-all for employers desperate to stop their employees from joining the ranks of the Great Resignation.
Google ‘which companies have four day weeks?’, and you will find dozens of lists featuring hundreds of such companies.
A quantitative fix to a qualitative problem
Here's what isn't immediately obvious in all this hype — the vast majority of these companies are small (tech) startups. Giant corporations that employ tens of thousands and exert massive influence on conversations around the future of work are conspicuously missing in action.
Even within the companies that have bought into it, the four-day week is far from evenly distributed. According to one report from the US, 43% of companies offer a four-day week — but only 10% of them make it available to all or most of their employees.
Among small companies too, just 14% make it available to all or most of their workers, while only 5% of large companies do the same.
Another critical nuance that's often missing from debates on this subject is that merely reducing the number of working days doesn't mean anything if the total number of working hours remains the same. In India, for instance, there's been a proposal to implement a four-day week, but employees would still have to clock 48 hours a week, meaning that the new work day will be 12 hours long.
Moreover, trialling a shorter week for a week or a month is incomparable with implementing such a policy permanently. I’d be wary of any kind of data coming out of such short-lived experiments.
This could change with a new large-scale trial in the UK, involving over 70 companies and 3,300 employees from 30 sectors who will participate in a four-day work week programme for a period of six months. The organisers will measure the programme's impact on the productivity and wellbeing of employees.
But as things stand today, it is hard to tell whether the companies that tried such exercises in the past achieved anything beyond some positive press coverage. The BBC again reports the case of Treehouse, an online education company in Portland, Oregon, which had to abandon a four-day week and revert to the standard 40 hours. There are other such examples in the same article.
The main reason I am suspicious of the four-day week is this: shorter work weeks, just like nap rooms at work or yoga on Zoom, are pointless by themselves. Ask any employee from any industry, and they will tell you that four days of work are no better than five days if they still have to deal with bad bosses and oppressive, count-your-bathroom-breaks work cultures.
People don’t get sick just because they spend a lot of time doing something but because of what that time feels like.
Because management thinking is dominated by numbers and data, we spend too much energy finding quantitative solutions for qualitative problems. Hacking the work week to spare employees a few hours of stress does nothing to take away the root causes of the stress: all of which have to do with broken work cultures.
Quite the contrary: it is basically an admission that the damage at the workplace is so bad that there is no point even trying to repair it. The only thing we can do is to stay away from it as much as we can.
What about mental health leaves?
I feel much the same way about mental health leaves — another growing HR favourite.
Sure, if the goal is to normalise conversations around mental health, I could see some merit in it. However, considering the level of stigma that still exists in society around mental health conditions and the fear of discrimination at the workplace, it is difficult to see too many employees going to the leave management dashboard, clicking on the dropdown menu that lists the reasons for applying for leave, and selecting 'mental health'.
A good rule of thumb, therefore, is to never introduce policies like mental health leave in a vacuum. First do the groundwork: talk to your people and ask them if this is something they want. Assess whether your organisational culture can support such a move.
Ultimately, what people value is the freedom and flexibility to switch off from the always-on hustle culture and take the time they need to tend to themselves — when they need it. Asians, Indians in particular, are already among the world’s most overworked people. Before the pandemic, city workers in India clocked 53-54 hours a week, many of them forced by low wages and income insecurity. The pandemic has stretched the average work day across the world. A Deloitte survey on burnout in the US found that one in four professionals rarely take all of their vacation days, and that the top driver of burnout is lack of support or recognition from leadership.
Fixing this leadership problem will be a far bigger service to making work a less stressful experience than four-day weeks and mental health leaves.
Additional resource: How to consult your employees before rolling out a new policy (source: Housing and Safety Executive, UK).
Tanmoy Goswami is Founding Editor, Sanity, India's first independent mental health storytelling platform.
All opinions are the author's.