Can You Be Just as Productive with a Four-Day Work Week? The Results Are In

The secret to increased productivity may be less time at work, not more, according to a new study on the four-day work week

Imagine if you had a three-day weekend every week. It sounds dreamy, doesn’t it? It also sounds like an actual dream because there’s no way that could ever happen, especially if you have an in-demand job with a huge workload … or could it? According to the preliminary results of a new study being conducted in the U.K., a four-day work week could actually be the key to increasing productivity, engagement and happiness at work.

This study is the largest of its kind and involves 73 companies and 3,300 employees, who are working four days a week without a reduction in pay. Halfway through the six-month trial, the results are so promising that 86% of the companies say they plan to continue the four-day work week after the trial is over, and it could prompt other companies to follow suit.

If it catches on, it would be the biggest work week change in nearly a century. The last time something like this happened was 1926, when Henry Ford implemented the five-day work week—something, by the way, that people said would never work. “After productivity at Ford increased, other companies joined the charge, and 40 hours became law within a decade,” says Bradford Goodwin, chief content officer at Lensa, a job-search website. “All it takes is for a few big companies to lead the way and be transparent about their results, and we could see a real shift.”

So, is a four-day work week really on the horizon? And how could it help counter quiet quitting and even make your company recession-proof? Do four-day work weeks help to combat burnout, like a wellness week does? Here’s what you need to know about the U.K. trial, as well as the other countries and companies that are changing work as we know it.

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How effective is a four-day work week?

The science suggests that spending less time at the office, not more, can boost productivity and even profits. At the halfway point of the six-month trial—which is being run by the nonprofit organization 4 Day Week Global, in partnership with researchers at Cambridge University, Boston College and Oxford University—productivity increased for half the companies despite everyone working 20% less, with 15% saying it “improved significantly.” Plus, a four-day work week helps with employee retention. The analysis shows that “63% of businesses found it easier to attract and retain talent with a four-day week,” and “78% of employees with four-day weeks are happier and less stressed.”

Claire Daniels, CEO at Trio Media, one of the companies in the trial, said in a press release, “The four-day week trial so far has been extremely successful for us. Productivity has remained high, with an increase in wellness for the team, and our business is performing 44% better financially.”

This isn’t surprising, according to Kelly Goss, a business process automation specialist for Solvaa, a cloud-based automation consultancy. She says a company’s success ultimately lies with its efficiency and workflow. “Automation in businesses helps increase productivity, boosts team morale and buy-in, and positions a business to improve its bottom line,” she explains. “Employers tend to react [to a four-day work week] as if they’re losing a fifth of every worker’s productivity, but that’s not really the case.” As employees become more efficient, their time is used more effectively and their self-esteem increases.

Is a four-day work week still 40 hours?

In 4 Day Week’s study, employees work 32 hours—or 80% of a traditional five-day work week—and receive their full salary. But outside the study, four-day work weeks vary by country and company. Some companies work Monday through Thursday, while others allow individuals to choose which day they want off. Other companies allow for half days and even more flexibility, and still others implement 10-hour days, so employees still work 40-hour weeks but get three-day weekends.

“There is no set standard for how a four-day work week should be structured,” says Michelle Hague, human resources manager at Solar Panels Network USA. As companies move toward four-day work weeks, though, you should take a look at the habits of naturally productive people.

What are the benefits of a four-day work week?

It’s good for morale

“The main argument for a four-day work week is that two days are simply not enough for an employee to rejuvenate their spirit,” says Alan Carr, CEO of Webpop Design in London, which operates on a four-day work week. “An extra day goes a long way in achieving a balanced work/life experience.”

Plus, happier people mean more engaged employees. “When an employee can clearly see the company is thinking of their well-being, it increases workplace autonomy,” Carr says. “The workers take the initiative to improve overall productivity.”

It increases productivity

Just because employees are working, it doesn’t mean they’re working efficiently. “The study was almost unanimous in its finding that 95% of the companies believed productivity increased from the implementation of a four-day work week because of a greater sense of accountability and desire to perform,” Carr says. A four-day work week creates more of a sense of urgency to get tasks completed, and if employees are motivated by working 32 hours but getting paid for 40, it behooves them to prove through action that a four-day work week is possible.

It reduces costs

This benefit mostly relates to companies whose employees aren’t remote. After all, if the office is closed one day a week, they’re saving on energy, maintenance, water and more. And employees can save too. “Traveling from home to the office and vice versa, eating out for meals and snacks, and even the outfit that needs to be worn in the office all contribute to expenses,” says Rajesh Namase, co-founder of TechRT. Even reducing these costs by one day—or 20%—can make a big difference.

It’s good for the environment

Passenger cars are the biggest producers of carbon emissions in the United States, and California is taking steps to ban gas cars, for good reason. The four-day work week wouldn’t eliminate commuting, but it would reduce it by 20%. “There will be fewer people transporting to the office and going home,” Namase says. “Hence, there will be fewer cars, resulting in fewer carbon emissions.” Reduced commuting also lessens wear and tear on vehicles, so they’ll last longer—something that also reduces our carbon footprint.

It reduces employee turnover

“Employees want to be treated as humans,” says Danielle Boris, CEO and founder of Sandbox, an HR technology company dedicated to leveraging and motivating talent. “The four-day work week tells your talent that you value them by granting authority over their time. When talent feels valued, they are more likely to stay.” The benefits of lower worker turnover include more efficiency (training takes time), happier employees (who aren’t picking up the slack when someone leaves) and a reduction in training costs for employers.

Are there any downsides of a shortened week?

vintage illustration of 4 clocks on a blue, Getty Images (2)

It’s not possible in all fields

A four-day work week creates scheduling challenges in some industries, especially in the sectors with customer-facing roles, hospitals or other businesses that run 24/7. “Scheduling workers for a four-day week might necessitate hiring more staff or simply more nimble scheduling,” says Andre Kazimierski, CEO of Improovy Painters. Not having people available Monday through Friday could also affect customer satisfaction.

It lessens a company’s sense of community

If employees are together less frequently, they won’t bond as much, which can reduce the sense of community among co-workers. Hyper-focus on the tasks at hand could also lead to less breathing room, connection and organic brainstorming.

Employees may have to work longer hours

A four-day work week may or may not mean extended hours. Some employees could shift to 10-hour days, which could lead to increased stress, child-care concerns and other issues. Even with four eight-hour days, employees might think they have to work longer hours or even an extra day to get everything done and that nothing would really change.

“Because the work week is shorter, you have to make sure that you’re still completing all of the tasks you need to complete during your shortened workday,” says Adina David, an HR manager and career coach at JobzHut. “Many people who try this schedule find that they end up working longer hours to get everything done.”

Do any countries currently have a four-day work week?

Yes, and more than you might think. Here’s a closer look at some of the countries changing the narrative on work.

  • Belgium: While Belgium still expects employees to work 38 hours weekly, when they do it is up to them. “The goal is to give people and companies more freedom to arrange their work time,” said Alexander De Croo, the Prime Minister of Belgium, in Feb. 2022.
  • Iceland: From 2015 to 2019, Iceland implemented a four-day work week trial of 2,500 government workers, and results showed happier, healthier, more productive employees. Since then, 86% of Icelandic companies have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay or are moving toward it.
  • Ireland: Ireland is currently engaged in a six-month pilot program called Four Day Week Ireland, and they plan to transition to a four-day work week for all public and private sector employees. Four Day Week Ireland’s website states: “We want to change the false narrative that working long hours is good for productivity and a badge of honour, challenge the worst excesses of the ‘work-first, always-on’ culture, and champion the importance of family time, leisure time, caring work and community work.”
  • Japan: Panasonic, Microsoft and other large corporations in Japan are trying a four-day work week. They hope that the extra day will help boost the economy by giving people an extra day to shop, a well as give people an extra day to meet potential partners to boost Japan’s shrinking birth rates.
  • Spain: Not only is Spain allowing companies to reduce work weeks to 32 hours, but the government is also making up the difference in pay through a €50 million project spread over three years.
  • The United Arab Emirates: The UAE is embracing a modified four-day work week with half-day Fridays.

Will four-day work weeks take off in the United States?

Americans work more than other affluent countries, and that’s not likely to stop anytime soon. There is definitely a culture around work and what it means, and it’s not necessarily a healthy one. After all, the United States doesn’t even have a paid parental leave program.

Some U.S. businesses, however, are championing a four-day week and greater autonomy overall, particularly in the tech space. This year, Kickstarter began its trial of four days without cutting pay, and Bolt, Headspace, Uplift, Buffer, Basecamp and Goosechase also offer four-day weeks. “This proves that it works for certain industries that are mostly online,” Goodwin says, adding that the real test will be whether it can work in industries like manufacturing and transport.

Even so, it will be a tough sell to some business leaders and politicians, who have a very specific idea of capitalism and productivity. But change is possible—and likely coming, at least to some extent. “Over the last few years, companies have been forced to try new ways of working, and many are finding that the flexibility workers now require is essential for keeping turnover low,” says Alexis Haselberger, a productivity, time management and leadership coach. “I don’t think it will ever be the norm in the U.S., but I think that more and more companies will adopt this.”

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Jaime Stathis
Jaime Alexis Stathis writes about health, wellness, technology, nutrition, careers and everything related to being a human being on a constantly evolving planet. In addition to Reader's Digest and The Healthy, her work has been published in Self, Wired, Parade, Bon Appétit, The Independent, Women’s Health, HuffPost and more. She is also a licensed massage therapist. Jaime is working on a novel about a heroine who saves herself and a memoir about caring for her grandmother through the dark stages of dementia.