A New Zealand firm recently tested a shorter work week. Here’s what happened.
Maybe working less is more.
After a New Zealand firm tested a four-day work week instead of the usual five-days last spring, employees became less stressed and more engaged at work — so the company will consider making the switch permanent.
Perpetual Guardian’s founder and CEO Andrew Barnes told The New York Times he was inspired to try a four-day week after reading a 2016 survey of 1,989 U.K. office workers that suggested employees are only productive for just under three hours of an eight-hour work day, because they get sidetracked by social media and discussing off-work topics with colleagues.
So he cut his 240 employees’ hours from 40 to 32 a week, and their shifts from five days to four, in March and April of this year — while still paying them for 40 hours — and had researchers from the Auckland University of Technology monitor the effects. They implemented new practices to be as productive as possible during those shortened work weeks, as well, such as shortening meetings from two hours to just 30 minutes.
By the end of the six-week trial, employees reported a 24% improvement in their work-life balance, and a 7% decrease in their stress levels. Team engagement also increased by 20% on average. “Their actual job performance didn’t change when doing it over four days instead of five,” Barnes told the paper. “Supervisors said staff were more creative, their attendance was better, they were on time, and they didn’t leave early or take long breaks.” And now Perpetual Guardian is considering sticking to its four-day schedule.
There’s been some buzz about switching from the standard five-day work week to just four days before, especially for working parents who could use the extra day to care for their kids. Deloitte and KPMG have offered four-day workweeks with flexible hours, although workers are still responsible for putting in their full 40 hours over those few days. Treehouse, a technology education company, boasted a four-day, 32-hour work week from 2006 to 2016. Workers had to start coming back to work on Fridays, however, after layoffs limited their workforce.
Some studies even suggest that a shorter work day, versus a shorter work week, can have long-term benefits. A 2016 Swedish trial reported that nurses working six-hour shifts in an elderly care home took fewer sick days than their peers who covered eight-hour shifts or more in a similar facility. The six-hour crew were also more productive during their shorter hours on the clock; they provided 85% more activities for the patients in their care, such as singing and playing games with them, than the control group working the two additional hours each day.
That came at a cost, however: The nursing home with the six-hour nurses had to hire 17 extra employees and spend $1.1 million to fulfill its staffing needs, the BBC reported, although adding those 17 jobs reduced the state’s unemployment costs by $530,000.
The average American worked 38.6 hours a week last year, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The most recent Gallup data puts the mean number at 44.5 hours a week, however, with 29% of U.S. employees reporting that they put in 45 to 59 hours, and 16% working 60-plus hours a week. A five-day work schedule is the standard — except now that workers are accessible 24/7 over emails and smartphones, more than half of employees say they still work during their unpaid personal time, according to a 2015 RAND survey, including nights, weekends and vacations. No wonder burnout rates are 40% to 50% across most U.S. fields, according to Business Insider.
The OECD has found that productivity is highest when people work fewer hours, and worker output actually drops once people clock in more than 48 hours per week. The CDC also linked putting in overtime with increased rates of illness, injury and death, not to mention weight gain and more alcohol use and smoking.
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