Space to breathe: the brilliant benefits of a four-day working week

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Thousands of workers in the UK and the US are taking part in a four-day working week this year, in a unique mass-scale experiment believed to be the largest of its kind in history. The trial, run by Oxford University thinktank 4 Day Week Global, will allow an extra day off with no loss of pay, to explore whether it sparks greater productivity for participating firms. 

The move comes amid a workplace shift dubbed “The Great Resignation”, in which many of us are reassessing how and why we work, in wake of the global pandemic. For some, the series of recent lockdowns prompted a realisation that life is too short for an unfulfilling job. Still others discovered newfound joy in remote working, including qualities such as more family time and the freedom of not having to commute. 

Many of us are reassessing how and why we work

In a buoyant job market where employees are calling the shots, the four-day working week could be the next stage in this evolution towards better work-life balance – and not before time. Even before the stress of the pandemic, UK workers put in the longest work hours in Europe, while OECD figures show that America is the world’s most overworked developed nation.

The four-day working week, then, could spell the beginning of a fresh chapter – a departure from our frenetic culture of grind, pressure and living for the weekend. A radical shift that allows us to learn new skills, spend time with loved ones or simply unwind in the way we always wanted to. Here are just a few benefits that come from having an extra day off a week:

Greater productivity 

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For those who understand Parkinson’s Law, the four-day working week makes a lot of sense. Coined by an economist in the 1950s, this rule dictates that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

According to the law, you will take as long as you give yourself to complete a certain task. If you have eight hours a day, five days a week, to complete a certain level of work, you’ll let your work expand into that time – even if it involves faffing around on occasion (hello, Friday afternoons…)

But if you cut that time down, you’d still be able to complete your tasks: you’d simply start working smarter and make every hour count.

Work smarter, not harder

Pareto’s 80/20 Rule also plays a role here. This formula says that 20% of our work is responsible for 80% of the results. In other words, it’s not how many hours you work but *what you do* in those hours that counts.

Four days working on big projects with the potential to carry major change will be far more effective than five days frittering your way through a series of smaller, less significant tasks (email being a prime example).

If you have less time, you work more efficiently

All of this explains why certain companies have seen their productivity increase after cutting to six-hour days. It also explains why Luxembourg is the most productive country in the world, despite the nation’s average working week of just 29 hours.

If you have less time, you work more efficiently. Meetings become shorter, deadlines tighter, priorities more focused. And with less hours at the grindstone, you’re more energised for the tasks ahead, too.

Greater calm and balance

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One of the (many) unwelcome legacies of Covid is the impact it’s had on workplace stress. If we felt fraught about our jobs before the pandemic (and most of us did), a global health crisis dialled up our anxiety levels, leaving many people feeling burnout and emotionally drained. 

In this context, a four-day work week offers a pressure valve that is long overdue. An extra day off allows greater balance, calming the relentless see-saw movement that swings from work and personal time in any given week. And, however that time is reclaimed, it has a visceral impact on our wellbeing. One Swedish care home saw sick leave drop by 10% after experimenting with a six-hour working day.

A four-day work week offers a pressure valve that is long overdue

“I think there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that when people are exhausted their productivity goes down,” says UK Green Party politician Caroline Lucas, who has advocated a four-day working week for years. “People are working ever more hours, getting ever more stressed, getting ever more ill-health – mental health problems as well.”

Overwork is counterproductive and a major stress factor for many people, wreaking havoc on our bodies and our minds. When we reduce hours, we help to neutralise this effect. This, in turn, fuels happiness – a major element of workplace productivity.

It also takes the pressure off weekends. With more time for personal activities and interests during the week, the average weekend is no longer a be-all and end-all scenario, with the residual Sunday night blues.

More time to be you

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Ultimately, a four-day working week allows you more time to flesh out untapped sides of your personality. Instead of being a one-track pony, you get to diversify your skills and try different things.

Professionally, this is an advantage: particularly in light of the pandemic, employers want well-rounded candidates with plenty of “soft” life skills. But personally, it’s even more crucial. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” was one of the top five regrets of the dying, according to a  viral article from a former palliative care nurse.

The beauty of a four-day working week is that you can spend it exactly as you please. “People have been thinking quite hard about that third day off and how best to use it so it can change their life. Some people come back to work and are incredibly energised,” says Christine Brotherton of Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based trusts firm, and one of the many businesses that has successfully trialled a four-day working week in recent years. “People have been training for marathons, going to the dentist, getting their car serviced, or doing the shopping for their elderly parents. All the stuff that has been put on the back burner, but either helps themselves or their family.”

A four-day working week is an antidote to the relentless demands of work. It quells the capacity that some jobs have to chip away at you. It gives you more time to be you.

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