4 Reasons We Should Have 4-Day Workweeks, According To Research

Bernie Sanders says a shorter work week is not a "radical idea." Here's what happens when companies try it.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (above) is pushing for shorter work weeks. Here's the research on what that extra day off does for workers and their employers.
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders (above) is pushing for shorter work weeks. Here's the research on what that extra day off does for workers and their employers.

Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders and other progressive lawmakers introduced legislation that would shorten the work week from 40 hours to 32.

The bill would lower the federal overtime threshold from 40 hours down to 32, so that companies would have to start paying overtime after hourly employees worked 32 hours in a week. The bill would also require time-and-a-half pay when workers log more than eight hours in a day.

“Moving to a 32-hour workweek with no loss of pay is not a radical idea,” said Sanders, citing productivity advancements. “It is time to reduce the stress level in our country and allow Americans to enjoy a better quality of life.”

Although the bill is unlikely to pass in the House and Senate, the bill is part of a growing wave of employer and government-sponsored experiments with flexible work weeks.

The 40-hour workweek has been standard in the U.S. for more than eight decades, but it doesn’t have to be. Working fewer hours on the same salary can be a win-win for employers and their employees. Take it from companies who have done it. In 2020, Mike Melillo, the CEO of The Wanderlust Group, an outdoor technology company based in New England, noticed that working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic was taking a toll on him and his 44 employees.

“I was aware of how much of a cognitive load it is to just be connected all the time,” Melillo said. “I think COVID really highlighted how frequently we were sitting there.”

That May, he made the decision to make Mondays a day off for everyone without reducing their salaries, since Monday is the best day to take advantage of New England with fewer tourists.

“I was saying, ‘Let’s try it for three months and see how it goes.’ We ended up having our three best months [in revenue, engagement and traffic]. The overall happiness of the team in general and the families went up so significantly,” he said. “What ultimately was lost was just a bunch of bad meetings that people felt obligated to be in.”

As a result, The Wanderlust Group made the switch to four-day workweeks permanent. According to the job board website ZipRecruiter, the share of job listings with a four-day week has quadrupled in the past five years, from 14 out of 10,000 jobs to 62 out of 10,000 in 2020. The most common fields offering four-day workweeks on ZipRecruiter are sales, retail and health care.

Although four-day work weeks are still uncommon in the U.S., the idea is less rare elsewhere. In 2020, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, recommended that employers move to four-day workweeks to increase domestic tourism and offset pandemic burnout. In 2021, the Spanish government approved a three-year pilot program to help companies make the switch, citing the belief that working more hours does not mean working better. Politicians in Russia and Britain have considered making laws to do the same.

Though skepticism and inertia may hold businesses back, there is a growing body of research that says dropping a fifth workday can benefit both workers and businesses. Here’s how that extra day off can help everyone:

1. Workers become more productive.

Having too many meetings is the top time-waster employees have cited in surveys. When you have fewer hours in the week to get work done, it can push organizations to streamline processes and give workers permission to make that morning meeting an email.

“It pushed people to do more centralized communication and written communication.”

- Mike Melillo, CEO of The Wanderlust Group

That’s what happened at The Wanderlust Group, Melillo said. “A lot of folks were using the Monday morning meeting to plan their week and to coordinate... . It pushed people to do more centralized communication and written communication.”

Other businesses that reduced workweeks have reported increased efficiencies, too. Microsoft tested a four-day week without pay decreases in Japan in August 2019, and it led to a 40% improvement in sales per employee compared with the previous summer. The overwhelming majority of employees said they were pleased with the change.

Although not every business that tries a four-day workweek has a change in productivity, a majority do. A 2019 study from the University of Reading found that two-thirds of British businesses that implemented the change reported an increase in staff productivity. A British labor organization has argued for a universal four-day week by pointing out that productivity gains from automation and technology should benefit everyone.

Compressing the workweek can also serve as a learning moment to see where there may be gaps in knowledge and efficiencies. When you ask staff what they can accomplish in four days rather than five, “you learn a lot about how about how your organization operates and runs,” Melillo said, which is why he encourages companies to at least test it out.

“On average, job postings offering a four-day workweek receive 15% more applications than other job postings in the same industry.”

- ZipRecruiter data

2. Job listings that advertise four-day workweeks get more applicants.

The flexibility of a shorter workweek is an important benefit that job candidates actively want. Julia Pollak, ZipRecruiter’s labor economist, found that on average, job postings offering a four-day week receive 15% more applications than other postings in the same industries, according to company data from 2018 to now.

“So far this year, four-day workweek job postings have attracted 30% more applications than other job postings in personal care services, 24% more in tourism, 16% more in health care, 10% more in tech, 9% more in education and 4% more in construction,” Pollak said.

According to the University of Reading’s research, 63% of employers in the United Kingdom with a four-day workweek said the benefit has helped them to attract and retain talent.

3. When you work less, it can be good for the environment.

Beyond helping out businesses, working less could also help out the Earth. A 2012 analysis from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, argued that working fewer hours is good for the environment.

“Countries with shorter work hours tend to have lower ecological footprints, carbon footprints and carbon dioxide emissions,” the researchers wrote, citing less commuting and a lower need for energy consumption. They estimate that working one less day a week could reduce a carbon footprint by more than 30%.

The energy savings were notable, too. The Microsoft trial in Japan found that by working one day less a week, the office’s electricity use declined by 23% and paper printing decreased by 59%.

4. Having more flexibility helps people find work-life balance.

In addition to helping a company’s bottom line, a four-day workweek also has psychological benefits.

In 2018, the New Zealand estate planning advisory firm Perpetual Guardian partnered with academic researchers in Auckland and tracked the effects of paying its 240 workers for 40 hours but having them work four days a week. At the end of the two-month trial, workers reported that they were able to spend more time with their families and were less stressed. Overall, employees reported a 24% improvement in work-life balance. As a result, the company made four-day weeks a permanent option for those who wanted it.

Olivia Hennedy, an employee of The Wanderlust Group brand Dockwa, said that before the switch to a four-day workweek, working from home tired her. The extra day off has actually been an energy boost. “An extra day, whether it’s to get some errands done or to get outside or to rest, has really made my mental health better and has definitely translated into my work,” she said.

Since COVID, more people are openly talking about employee burnout and the need for time to rest and recover. Melillo thinks four-day weeks will become more normal.

“I think in the long run, this is not going to be as crazy as it seems today to be fully remote and have a four-day workweek,” Melillo said. “I think it really comes down to just trust. Do you trust the people that you’re building a company with to make the right decisions? And if you do, I don’t need to babysit you.”