Does a Four-Day Workweek Works?

Admit it, there are times when you think work sucks especially when you’re inundated with a lot of paperwork and deadlines to beat. You often look at your phone only to realize it’s still Wednesday and you still got half a week to go before you can hang out with friends on Saturdays or sleep the whole day on Sundays.

We know it’s awful but people have been experiencing this kind of hopeless and anxious feeling for ages. But it’s not like the time when our grandparents have to work for hundred-hour weeks or six days and children have to endure the work conditions of the coal mines or workhouses.

Is it really fair to ask for a four-day workweek? Does it really work in real life?

Well, let's dig deeper into that.

A Not-So-Short History

In 1926, something revolutionary happened when one man implemented a five-day, 40-hour work week. That man was a shrewd industrial tycoon named Henry Ford. Yes that Henry Ford who built the Ford Motor Company into the world’s pre-eminent automaker. His success was buoyed by the implementation of his assembly-line system where workers have to focus on certain aspects of the automobile process. It was boring and repetitive work for most people yet it made his product affordable for the common man.

However, there was pressure was mounting from the militant labor so Ford thought that by offering his workforce good employment benefits for the time they spent working – through good work-life balance and above-average wages – he could grow his customer base thereby increasing brand recognition and driving sales even further. In retrospect, it was not an honest-to-goodness corporate social responsibility on his part but more like a means to drive productivity even higher than before so he can pad his wealth even further at the expense of his workforce.

In 1938, US President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which eventually established a minimum hourly wage of 25 cents and a maximum workweek of 44 hours and guaranteed "time-and-a-half" for certain jobs. It was later adjusted to 40 hours per week two years later. With this landmark legislation, employers have to pay for overtime if they wanted their employees to work longer hours.

Even though new laws were later passed like the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947 (addressed certain employee activities to clarify what constitutes “hours worked”), the FLSA 1961 Amendment (expanded coverage to include jobs in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and all government entities), the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (prohibited differences in pay based on the employee's gender), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (prohibited differences in pay based on the employee's age),  there haven’t been any meaningful changes to the federally-recognized workweek in the postwar era.

What happened since then?

Let’s give a proper historical context in a nutshell on how we ended up getting the standard five-day, 40-hour workweek we all know. The period leading up to the First World War saw intense labor movements as workers demanded better work conditions. Then the Great Depression saw a lot of people losing their jobs and by the time the Second World War came along, practically most of the economic activities were focused on the war effort.

After the war, lawmakers and politicians wanted to return to the status quo, but workers were pushing for greater change in the workplace. They were tired of being treated as disposable resources for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

The industrialization of labor brought changes, as people from rural areas moved to cities to work in factories. This resulted in a surge in productivity as capitalists and industrialists introduced more advanced technology. Thanks to these socio-economic and technological factors, the labor sector was able to secure important reforms, including the modern workweek.

Yet with all these gains, why haven’t we seen something similar in more recent years?

Since the advent of modern computing, the rise of the Internet, and the democratization of information on a massive scale, we have entered a second industrial revolution. As automation increased productivity, many manual-type jobs have become redundant as machines and computers took over while new types of work emerged. Soon, productivity demands outpaced worker compensation. What our grandparents can do in a week can now be done in half a day so that means we’re getting paid less for it when adjusted for inflation.

So, shouldn’t we be working as many hours as we do to accomplish our tasks, right? Well, not exactly.

The thing is many policymakers have tried to disconnect economic growth from employee compensation. It’s not a surprise that the objective of decoupling was intentional because companies want greater profits without raising salaries so that executives and shareholders get the fat slice of the money.

During the administration of US President Ronald Reagan, the so-called trickle-down economics was widely preached. It refers to the economic policies that disproportionately favor the upper end of the economic spectrum like wealthy investors and large corporations. Proponents believe that tax breaks and benefits for corporations and the wealthy will trickle down to everyone else.

Yet that doesn’t happen in the real world all the time. If you’re in their shoes, why give workers more time off when you can just keep squeezing every ounce of their productive value and cash in as much profit as possible?

The Real Hard Facts

There are quantifiable numbers that show shorter workweek not only improves the lives of employees but also positively impact the company they work for.

Yes, it is not a secret that not everyone can be super productive in the entire eight-hour stretch or so at work. You know, you can’t. You’re not a robot. The truth of the matter is no work can keep up busy for that long. Exact figures may vary across industries but an average worker can only be engaged in productive, business-related activities for less than 60% of any day. That means the unaccounted 40% of your supposed “productive” hours are spent on a lunch break, water cooler talk, or just killing time off.

If you happen to work in an office environment, an average office worker can only be productive for only 2 hours and 23 minutes, which is 38% productivity. That’s a huge amount of time where there’s just nothing to do.

So how do business owners force their workers to cover 62% of lost productivity?

They may want to find ways to force workers to be productive for the entire eight hours of drudgery in the form of ‘busy work.’ Just imagine the time when you’re doing mundane tasks as you have to clock in for that entire stretch even though you have finished actual work already. We will reach a point where it has become ridiculous to keep working for the sake of not being ‘unproductive.’

So, what happens? We end up stuck in a mind-numbing, pointless busy work that we end up hating our job every day and the boss a little bit more. Common sense tells you that enforcing maximum productivity is not good for workers and it’s not good for business owners too.

Why not shorten the workweek?

Well, that was the whole thing workers have been fighting for years in the first place. There have been efforts to implement a four-day workweek in research trials in different countries, especially in the United States and Ireland in February and March 2022. In these experiments, involving 33 companies and over 900 employees, companies that were interested in trying out a reduced workweek received training, tools, and support to make sure the transition go smoothly.

Is it possible to maintain productivity and revenue while increasing employee morale and improving work-life balance under a shortened workweek? Well, the results are quite remarkable. Revenue increased by 8% as employee retention increased and absenteeism dropped. More importantly, two-thirds of workers reported lower levels of burnout while physical well-being and mental health improved as workers get more sleep and exercise. Since there was useless downtime, they are more focused and less bored at work. In short, every aspect of work across the board has improved.

These pilot programs were a smashing success as 97% of the workers wanted to continue the shortened workweek. In fact, some of the respondents reported that no amount of money can convince them to go back to the five-day workweek.

As we spend most of our time on the road commuting or driving, a four-day workweek would mean a 20% reduction. In the Philippines, 8.96 million people commute every day on jeepneys while 1.87 million people hop on buses to get to work. Traffic congestion in cities as well as carbon emissions will be tremendously reduced in one change alone. There are essentially zero drawbacks, except for the fossil fuels industry seeing their profits shrink.

Think about getting an extra weekend every week when you shorten workdays thereby freeing you to spend more time with family and friends. Additional days off would also give you an extra day for yourself to de-stress and relax thereby boosting your work-life balance. Everything adds up in the long run so you end up with a country with happier, healthier, stress-free, and well-rested workers.

What’s the Catch?

Seems like shortened workweek works right? Getting everyone on board for this possible change in the way everyone work is a no-brainer. Yet, it sounds too good to be true.

Some are pushing for this behind a hidden agenda and one of them is Kiwi innovator, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Andrew Barnes. What makes it quite ironic is that he is a CEO himself, a role that is antagonistic to labor. Even in the goodness of his heart, there is a contradiction between the capitalistic system and the labor movement so his advocacy for a four-day workweek seems to be tenuous at best.

In public discourse, he sees a shortened workweek as a ‘gift to his workers’ and not as a right based on the fact that productivity has increased exponentially in the last hundred years. That is a glaring red flag as that flawed perspective should serve everyone as a warning that capitalists are willing to curtail those privileges so they can cash in on the profits from the productive output and value of workers.

Many of those who support the initiative, think more about seeing it as something that provides more efficient and compliant cogs in their system and not on the altruistic side of things. It’s not to say that they are despicable people, it’s just the truth of the matter is the end goals of capital and labor are often in direct conflict. Capital is about increasing profits and decreasing costs while labor is about getting as much money as possible for valuable time and productive output. These two opposing sides will never be aligned.

Achieving a Win-Win Equilibrium

In the case of the four-day workweek, it’s as close as it gets towards an equilibrium. In an ideal world, it fulfils both sides of their end goals.

But how?

Based on the research trials mentioned above, the 100-80-100 model is a proposition that guarantees the worker’s average pay at 100% after providing 80% of their time in a commitment to deliver 100% of their productive output. If you come to think of it, workers would be able to get some time off and keep their pay while businesses can reduce costs in the form of utilities, turnover, and inefficiency.

As much as it benefits both parties, it all lies in the willingness of the capitalist class to embrace shortened workweek for good. It took more than a century of struggle and agitation from the labor movement to get to where we are right now – child labor laws, workplace safety laws, social security, and other social benefits we enjoy now. So the idea of this kind of change, no matter how promising, will take some time before it becomes the norm.

Even with the rise of work-from-home and remote work in recent years, a huge bulk of the global workforce is still working way past the standard eight hours around the world. We often hear stories of people working to exhaustion and even, death in China, Japan, and South Korea. Most of the gig workers still have to dig deeper to earn a living and are often exploited by the system. In other words, there is still a long, winding, and rocky road to go.

Final Thoughts

As much as we would love to be optimistic about how things will turn out, we have to understand that those on top will never feel the pressure as their concerns are focused solely on getting as much production value as possible to produce greater profits. We have to support the labor movement, who’s fighting for greater change and more equitable work, to demand better working conditions than depend on the self-serving ‘generosity’ of those on top.

Bring back the time when workers have a real say in their working conditions. At the end of the day, we all have roles to play, it’s the power of the collective that we can force the change we want to enjoy.

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