We need a 4-day work week

As the summer comes to a close, and people start going back to work and school, I can’t help but wonder why we don’t have a 4-day work week. I was blessed to be in a position to take every Friday off this summer, effectively giving myself, a 4-day work week (8 weeks in total) and it has been an incredibly positive experience. Whether you love your job or not, the elation you feel on Thursday evening knowing you have 3 free days ahead is simply sublime. I found myself significantly more engaged at work which showed in my improved productivity and more importantly I felt better, physically and mentally. Interestingly, my experience was shared by numerous other people at companies who have recently run 4-day work week pilot projects.

Some of the earliest recorded evidence shows that the move to 8-hour workdays occurred in 16th century Spain. In 1593, King Phillip II of Spain established the 8-hour workday by a royal edict called Ordenanzas de Felipe II. It mandated 8 hours of work per day for people in factories and 7 hours of work per day for mine workers. The origins of the modern 5 days, 40 hours work week (8 hours per day) lie in the post-Industrial Revolution period in the United Kingdom. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was common for employees to work 10 to 16 hours a day and 6 days a week. Significant improvements in technology and the use of large-scale factories increased productivity which gave rise to the modern labour movement. Various trade unions and advocates such as Robert Owen and Karl Marx started to advocate for 10 hours and 8 hours working days in the early to mid-1800s. In 1847, a limit of 10 hours of work per day was enacted by the UK for women and children.

Near the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, countries started to adopt the 5 to 6 days and 8 hours per day work week. In 1915, Uruguay formally adopted the 8-hour workday nationwide followed by various other countries that slowly started to ratify the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919 which mandated an 8-hour workday and 48 hours work week. Most European countries adopted the convention in the 1920s; Canada ratified the convention on March 21, 1935. In 1938, the United States enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act which mandated employers pay time and a half for every hour worked over 40 hours a week effectively adopting a 40-hours work week nationwide. France adopted the 40-hours work week in 1936, followed by Australia in 1948 and Canada in the early 1960s. By the 1970s, most European countries had adopted the 40-hours work week.

This all happened due to improved technology which increased economic productivity requiring people to work less while being equally or more productive. It was the result of a herculean effort by advocates, trade unions and workers protesting for their rights from which we all benefit today. However, this system of the 8-hours workday and 5 days work week has not changed in almost 90 years, since the 1930s. There has been immense technological progress since then, and as a result the world as a whole is far more productive as measured by the ever-increasing global GDP. There is little reason that in the modern economy, workers cannot or should not be able to work 4 days a week.

The advantages of the 4-day work week seem obvious; the clearest advantage is workers getting more time and autonomy. One can always make more money and make more products and avail themselves to provide more services, however no one can make more time; it is the highest value commodity although not everyone realizes this reality. With a 4-day work week, workers can enjoy an extra day off every week to spend with family, friends, and have more time to focus on their physical and mental health. It would afford workers more time to rest and decompress and ultimately increase productivity as so many examples have shown us. One of the main arguments against the 4-day work week is that it will decrease productivity but if any number of companies are indicative of what actually happens on a 4-day work week, productivity either remains the same or increases.

The 4-day work week will largely be a net positive for society however it is not without its disadvantages. The main disadvantage would be potentially less coverage and less services available for consumers. This is not necessarily a net negative if we take a note of any number of European countries such as France where most stores close by 7 pm or 8 pm and Spain where most stores close for a few hours in the middle of the day and usually by 8 pm in the evening, yet their economies are still functional and people are living life as usual. Another disadvantage can be the potentially larger work burden for employees who must complete the same amount of work in 20% less time. However, it is very likely, if any of the pilot programs by various companies have shown, that most employees will happily shoulder the heavier workload for greater autonomy and more time off. Finally, the 4-day work week may not work in every single industry, however with enough willpower and creative maneuverability, some level of flexibility could likely be applied to most workplaces. For example, a factory that runs 7 days a week could stagger its employees’ schedules such that there is around the clock coverage but employees work less overall.  

Even with some of the disadvantages, most will agree that the advantages and overall net benefits of the 4-day work week far outweigh the disadvantages. We pay too much attention to tangible, measurable performance targets across all industries in society but we pay far too little attention to what really matters which is the well-being of individuals. What benefit is there in a highly productive but deeply depressed society, where the masses drone on, slogging day after day for the benefit of the few? We live in a time of incredible human progress and unprecedented human productivity, so it is time the working people started to share in the gains by getting an extra day off every week. It took a global catastrophe to shift to large scale work from home, my only hope is that we learn from this and do not require another global catastrophe spur the advent of widespread 4-day work week.