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Four-day work week: Will it work for your P&C office?

May 30, 2022   by Jason Contant

Traffic signs for four-day and five-day work weeks

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If you’re considering implementing a four-day work week at your P&C workplace, it’s important to realize the potential drawbacks of this approach, as laid out in a blog from Harvard Business Review.

“Before trying a four-day workweek, employers need to be aware of two important factors,” says the blog published Friday. “First, a reduction in hours must also be accompanied by a revision of or even reduction in workload. Second, time at work could become even more intense and stressful for workers, even if there are productivity benefits to be had.”

During the 2022 Ontario provincial election, both the Ontario Liberal and NDP parties have promised to look into a four-day work week, which would allow workers to work the same number of hours, but spread out over four days instead of five. The idea has been tested in New Zealand, Japan, Scotland and Spain.

Despite gains workers have made through the COVID-19 pandemic in increasing flexibility in where they work, bigger workloads have meant there is little slack for people to take time out and recover, notes the blog, What Leaders Need to Know Before Trying a 4-Day Work Week. With reports of increasing levels of stress and burnout since the pandemic began, “initiatives such as the four-day workweek, remote and hybrid working, unlimited paid time off and right-to-disconnect have been gaining in popularity in an attempt to tackle these high-workload, always on cultures.”

But do these solutions really offer change for workers? Research from the UK Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit) suggests the answer is complicated and not easily answered without addressing the real problem: the issue of excessive workloads and intensification. “By focusing so strongly on the where and when of work, policymakers appear to have lost sight of how and how much we are working,” write the authors, Emma Russell, Caroline Murphy and Esme Terry.

Russell is a chartered and registered occupational psychologist and co-lead of the data observatory and mid-early career research stream at Digit. Murphy is a senior lecturer in employment relations and a director in Ireland’s Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. Terry is a research fellow at the Leeds University Business School, whose role is funded by Digit.

Workers back in the office

Kitchener, Ont.-based software company Green Brick Labs recently moved to a four-day work week. And while the blog authors support four-day work week initiatives, they note that reducing work hours does not necessarily reduce work, and reducing hours should not increase work intensity.

“Research shows that people with more intensive workloads tend to ruminate about work outside of working hours and are unable to switch off until their work problems have been solved,” write Russell, Murphy and Terry. “On the other hand, our own research has shown that some people want to be able to check in on work and keep connected because it worries them more when they do not have oversight of what is going on, which prevents them from feeling in control.”

Some questions to consider asking your P&C employees include:

  • Is it having a full day off each week? Or is it working four days’ worth of hours across the week that helps?
  • Can time-use diaries be used to show that people are actually switching off from work when disconnected from it and engaging in activities that promote well-being and meaningfulness?
  • Are diverse groups and those with caring responsibilities equally benefitting when they cannot access their work at certain times of the day or week?

A pilot study from New Zealand’s move to a four-day work week found that to fit in their “real work,” employees took shorter breaks and spent less time lingering to socialize so that they could complete their measurable tasks.

Although some workers enjoyed this type of full-on pace, others felt the urgency and pressure caused heightened stress levels, leaving them in need of the additional day off to recover from the work intensity. “Participants in the research bemoaned that there was no more time for ‘banter’ and that creativity and innovation were being stifled,” the authors write in the Harvard Business Review blog.

The New Zealand trial also found reductions in working days didn’t necessarily create well-being benefits, since the workers struggled to meet the demands of their jobs. “It is perhaps telling that much of the publicity around the success of Microsoft Japan’s four-day workweek trial rested on how productivity increased substantially during the study period,” the blog notes. “Employers may need to be careful about promoting outputs over well-being if they want to be seen as investing in their workforce’s work-life balance.”

The authors conclude that while the ideas of a “right to disconnect” or a four-day work week are laudable and well-intentioned, the devil is in the details.

“No matter matter what we do, taking a holistic, long-term focus on the well-being of the workforce is the best path to both happiness and prosperity,” the blog says. “Maybe the answer is a four-day workweek. Or maybe it’s something else. But we must start with an honest appraisal of how productivity and time trade-offs impact the well-being of workers.”


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