Is a 4 Day Work Week the Answer to Employee Burnout?

The 4 day work week has been a roaring success in Iceland. Can it be the answer to our current employee burnout?
Gauraa at SmartGift
July 23rd 2021Jul 23, 2021

As discourse surrounding the future of work continues to gather traction, storied accounts of employee burnout have gained increasing prevalence in the national and global workplace. Work from home burnout has become a focal point in many of these conversations; and as companies announced their building reopening dates, CNBC reported extensively on the return to work burnout.

Millennial burnout has been a steady topic of conversation pre-dating the pandemic, and the 5 stages of burnout—categorized as the honeymoon phase, onset of stress, chronic stress, burnout, and habitual burnout—have been chewed over and debated in corporate offices across the contiguous US.

In April 2021, approximately 4 million American workers quit their jobs in a movement NPR identified as “The Great Resignation.” Now, many employers are looking over to the European workforce for inspiration. Perhaps with a 4 day work week, they ponder, employees could reach an ideal work-life balance that will mitigate signs of burnout at the very onset.

The New Zealand 4 Day Work Week Study

In March, 2018, a New Zealand estate planning firm called Perpetual Guardian switched its staff of 240 to a 4 day work week without docking pay, and claimed it resulted in a 20% increase in overall productivity levels. The study was monitored closely by the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology, who then compared leadership, stimulation, empowerment, and commitment scores to the year before.

According to the study’s findings, staff stress levels had reduced from 45% to 38%, and work life balance scores were up from 54% to 78%. Many employees reported lower burnout, and discovered that working fewer days a week increased their focus on tasks and assignments and led to increased productivity at work.

Andrew Barnes, the founder of Perpetual Guardian, said of the 4 day work week: “[it’s] not just having a day off a week—it’s about delivering productivity, and meeting customer service standards, meeting personal and team business goals and objectives.”

Since New Zealand’s 4 day work week study, many companies across the world have tried implementing a four day work week study as an attempt at avoiding burnout. After the overwhelming success of Iceland’s 4 day work week trials, Spain recently announced that it will become the world’s first country to officially trial a 4 day work week, beginning next September.

Benefits of a 4 Day Work Week

Research on 4 day work weeks in Iceland has shown that working less without pay-cuts not only improved productivity levels, but also workers’ health, stress levels, sense of well-being, and work-life balance. Participants in Iceland’s trial also noted that it was easier to run errands, participate in home duties, make time for oneself and their family when they were working less.

According to Autonomy, parents reported being able to spend more quality time with their children, a widely held desire among the participants pre-trials. Single parents especially expressed that the reduction in work hours had a positive effect on their quality of family life.

One parent said of life before reduced hours, “if mornings were difficult and getting out the door was difficult...and I wasn’t able to stay longer at work in the afternoon, [sic] I might even have had to go to work during the weekend to finish my hours.” This was no longer the case during reduced hours.

CNBC claims the 4 day work week results in a more loyal and engaged staff. If you’re concerned about how millennials became the burnout generation, flexible working hours help largely with employee motivation levels, leaving staff committed to their duties, and strengthening collaboration at the office.

What companies have 4 day work weeks?

With the roaring success of trials in New Zealand and Iceland, well-known corporations have started embracing the 4 day work week. Some companies like Microsoft Japan did so before the pandemic, and saw productivity levels increase by 40%. The company also reduced times spent in meetings by implementing a thirty minute cap, and encouraging remote communication from home offices.

Elephant Ventures, a New York software and data firm, started a 4 Day Work Week trial in August of 2020 after observing 20-30% productivity boosts from their Manila team that works 4 days a week. However, they handled the model differently. Instead of reducing the total hours worked in a week, they extended working hours from Monday to Thursday, and gave their employees a three day weekend. “After 3-day weekends, our team came back with renewed focus and energy and we had a great week,” reads the company report.

More recently, the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter announced their plans to administer the 4 day work week in 2022. Kickstarter’s CEO Aziz Hasan told CNBC: “I fundamentally believe that something like this would allow us to be more potent as a group...if our time and attention is focused as best as it can be in those four days — can we have a more potent impact on the things that we care about from a professional standpoint, so that it opens up so much more range for us personally?”

Other 4 day work week companies include Buffer, Shake Shack, Grey New York, and Shopify. “I’m home at 5:30 pm every evening,” tweeted Shopify CEO Tobias Lutke. “My job is incredible, but it’s also just a job. Family and personal health rank higher in my priority list.”

He added, “My belief is that there are 5 creative hours in everyone’s day. All I ask of people at Shopify is that 4 of those are channeled into the company.”

Many German and British firms are now trailing along the 4 day work week trend, touting higher productivity levels and work-life balance as the reason to commission more trials and studies on the model.

4 Day Work Week Health Benefits

Research shows that regularly working long days can increase chances of having a stroke, developing heart disease, experiencing anxiety and depression. “The imperative of needing two adult partners in a family to engage in paid work comes at the expense of time devoted to family care responsibilities, or simply to recharge our increasingly rundown batteries,” wrote Andrew Barnes for CNN.

A significant number of participants in the original 4 day workweek trial expressed that working a fewer number of hours a day allowed them more time to exercise than before: “you have more time to go out and do some exercise, exercise helps a lot...And as a result, you are less tired generally. You are more tired if you do not exercise.”

With all its endorphins, exercise, of course, is a known stress reliever, and allowing employees the time and opportunity to do so can aid significantly with burnout recovery, and physical symptoms associated with emotional burnout and long term chronic stress.

From the employer’s perspective, research has shown that transitioning to 4 day work weeks can also reduce overhead costs to businesses. Not only are team members taking fewer sick days when they’re working less, but companies are saving costs in electricity usage, office supplies, and even food supplies.

Disadvantages of a Shorter Workweek

While the benefits of a 4 day work week sound endlessly appealing, the concept isn’t without its own set of drawbacks. First and perhaps most importantly, the model might not work for every business, especially for small businesses with customer and client service problems and poorly functioning distributed teams, as Elephant Ventures pointed out in their study.

It is also worth noting that a significant number of industries like emergency service providers, transportation services, crisis hotlines, and electricity providers require a 24/7 presence and other scheduling practices that would render a 4 day work week impractical.

For many businesses like Elephant Ventures, the switch to a 4 day work week might necessitate working longer hours (in their case, ten), which might lead to a significant effect on employee stress levels.

The 4 day work week has also reignited the conversation surrounding holiday entitlement since reducing the hours employees work each week will require a recalibration of the holiday time they’re entitled to.

Moreover, the risk for companies is very expensive. As seen in Sweden’s two-year trial, many of the costs were too pricey for employers to uphold.

Iceland’s study also indicates that each country’s economic factors present their own, individualized situation. Being one of the world’s most wealthy countries with very high income levels, labor force participation, and low unemployment, puts Iceland in a unique circumstance. Given the recent increase in unemployment due to the pandemic, switching to a 4 day work week might negatively affect many workers already looking for more work and hours.

Combating Burnout

As the 4 day work week is still in its trial phase, it might not be an immediate reality for the American workforce at large.

Putting aside the 4 day work week pros and cons, it’s imperative to first understand what is burnout, how to avoid burnout, and address those workplace burnout symptoms at their very onset as best as you can. Put simply, job burnout is feeling physically and mentally exhausted at work.

5 Recommended Tips to Avoid Job Burnout at Any Income Level

Both Iceland and Sweden’s trials show that whether you’re a remote worker or working onsite, it’s important to make time for your personal life to feel fulfilled, motivated, and productive at work.

Something as simple as taking breaks, even if it’s only for 20 minutes, can be beneficial when you’re close to, or at a burnout stage. Stepping away from your desk, going out for a quick walk or bike ride, can help you reorient yourself when you’re feeling exhausted.

Separating your work hours from your personal life plays an important part in preventing burnout. Unplugging from your emails, company devices, and other channels of workplace communication once you’ve completed office responsibilities for the day, can help assert boundaries and create time for yourself.

Exercise and meditation release endorphins that alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and other health conditions associated with burnout. Studies show that even short bursts of aerobic activity can help manage anxiety.

According to Thrive Global, good social relationships result in increased levels of happiness. Carving out time for social well-being is crucial in order to feel fulfilled at your job. This could mean anything from spending quality time with your family, or catching up with a friend over a video call.

Picking up hobbies helps stave off burnout. Research has shown that spending 20 minutes on physical leisure activities leads to lower blood pressure levels, reduced BMI, and improved physical functions. Activities such as gardening, knitting, coloring, crafts and DIY are related to lower levels of depression and anxiety.

Regardless of your current work model, remember that you’re more likely to succeed in your professional life when you prioritize your personal health and well-being.

Back to Work is a weekly series that explores the challenging, exciting, and unprecedented time of transitioning back to work through the lens of those involved. As part of our mission to recognize workplace heroes, SmartGift aims to spotlight how fostering connection, transparency in communication, and workplace appreciation can affect company culture and the bottom line.

Over the forthcoming weeks, Back to Work will highlight how managers, employers, and employees continue to be affected by this transition in American work culture.