The Slow Death of the Five-Day Workweek

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The five-day workweek isn’t effective or sustainable. So what would a four-day workweek look like?

Since the inception of the five-day workweek - nearly 100 years ago - it has served only one main purpose: to maximize profitability. You wake up, go to work, and come home. Then, you wash, rinse, and repeat until Friday at 5:00 pm. 

Before the 1930s, working six days a week was the norm with most people using the seventh day - Sunday - to rest. Workers fought and earned the right to work only five days weekly after years of grueling conditions. 

Coming out of The Great War and (unknowingly) heading into World War II, workers wanted a better deal. At their back they had the support of the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt acknowledged the flaws in our current system of labor and laid out the words of the American people: we want a welfare system and better support for our society. Therefore, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was put in place that established the 40-hour workweek and catapulted new laws and regulations on workplace conditions. 

Changes since the five-day workweek became normalized

In the United States, we have transformed our workforce and workplaces from large, labor-filled manufacturing entities to more service-based industries. Especially since the IT revolution in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, there has been a significant increase in desk-based work. 

Now, since the COVID-19 pandemic uprooted the daily lives of almost every single person in the workforce, you have gone from large factory jobs to desk-based work, and now, your workplace is in your home (and sometimes your dining table). Work has now been transformed from voluntarily going above and beyond to receiving promotions to the employer almost requiring working beyond hours since you are already in your home.

What a shorter workweek can offer workers and organizations

There is an all too common argument that the quantity of work will decrease due to one less day in the office. Several studies have shown that a shorter workweek will not only improve their employees’ mental health and general well-being, but it has proven that employees produce a higher quality of work when their work-life balance is more in tune. 

From 2015 - 2019 Iceland conducted a test of a 35-36-hour workweek without any reduction in pay. “This study shows that the world’s largest-ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success,” said Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy.

Here are some highlights of the study:

  • Since the completion of the study, 86% of the country’s workforce are now working shorter hours or gaining the right to work shorter hours. 
  • Productivity and service provision remained the same or even improved across the majority of trial workplaces.
  • Worker well-being dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout to health and work-life balance. 
  • The trials also proved to be revenue neutral for both the city council and the government, providing a crucial and so far largely overlooked insight into how future trials might be organized. 

The biggest challenges to shortening the workweek in the U.S.

The main obstacle in the large-scale implementation of a shorter workweek/workday is changing the work culture. There might be places where people willingly put in extra hours to go above and beyond. They may want to prove that they are working hard by putting in those extra hours. However, that is detrimental because a workplace with a decent working culture is one where the quantity of the work is good, but the quality of the work exceeds the quantity. The culture should be less about man-hours and “nose to the grindstone”, and more about working efficiently, and collaborating effectively in a team to produce high-quality work and not about individually proving that you’re a harder worker than others. 

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Why we should care about a shorter workweek?

We should all be interested in the future of work. Regardless, we are all workers in one form or another. Whether it’s manufacturing, the service sector, or television, the future is something that we can shape and change. We should be interested in the future of work so we can actively change it for the better. 

How we should fill the time on our days off?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a grueling and mentally challenging time in human history. But, it has also brought to light many aspects that were unrecognized, neglected, or just abandoned with the lack of free time. When you are scrolling through social media, if it seems that suddenly everyone around is an artist, a singer, a baker, or an entrepreneur, then you are probably correct. The reason these realizations are so popular now is that the pandemic had forced us to isolate ourselves and learn about ourselves and have an honest conversation as to what we enjoy in this life and how we care to spend our time. 

The change in work culture since the start of 2020 is something that is well overdue. Employees are tired. Tired of long hours, tired of meaningless work, tired of being taken advantage of all the while, the CEO buys a third house, and his employees file for SNAP benefits. 

So, spend your time engaging with those people around you that cherish your presence and fill your days with meaningful activities that bring you joy - no rationale necessary. 

We would love to hear from you! If you have insight or any comments on the concept of a four-day workweek, send us a message and subscribe to our newsletter to always be up to date on the most recent marketing and small business news.