Brussels: There are two different models of the four-day workweek. One model envisions spreading the 40 hours commonly worked during a five-day week over four days. This means people will be working four ten-hour days.
Belgium is now allowing employees to decide between working a conventional five-day week or a shorter, more intense four-day week. The total worked number of hours is identical.
The other model differs from the typical workweek in that it envisions people getting 100% of the workload done in just 80% of the time, while still receiving their full salary. A few countries have begun trying out the four-day workweek.
Iceland, for example, tested the model between 2015 and 2019 to see how effective a shortened workweek and identical salary would be. Spain is starting a similar trial this spring for small and medium-sized companies, where 30% of employees will work 10% less while retaining their original salary. France, meanwhile, is planning to test a 35-hour workweek, spread over four days, for public administration employees.
Other countries like New Zealand, Japan and the United States are also looking into shorter workweeks. But what are the potential upsides and downsides?
Advantages of a four-day workweek
Undiminished productivity and less stress
Various pilot projects have led to positive effects. For example, a British study published in 2023 found that employees were less stressed and showed a lower risk of suffering from mental illnesses
like burnout when working four-day weeks. Anxiety, fatigue and sleep problems also decreased during the pilot phase. Overall, sixty-one companies with about 2,900 employees participated in the trial. The majority of companies said they intended to keep the four-day week in place. Many cited employees' increased well-being as a main reason for this decision.
Fewer sick days
At the same time, employees working four-day weeks called in sick less often. This is because workers have sufficient time to recover and endure less stress, said occupational psychologist Hannah Schade of the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors at the Technical University of Dortmund. This finding is helpful for thinking about the financial side of the four-day week, the expert said. The number of employees away on sick leave and dealing with mental illnesses need to be factored in by companies, after all.
Boosting equality, tackling labor shortages
Beyond its health and mental health benefits, the four-day workweek could also play a role in promoting greater equality. Speaking to DW, industrial psychologist Schade said the British study also found that men doing four-day weeks were more involved in care work, for example in looking after their children or relatives in need.
The four-day week could also help remedy Germany's shortage of skilled workers, said Institute for Employment Research director Bernd Fitzenberger. A four-day week "makes jobs more attractive, increasing the number of applicants in fields where companies are desperately seeking workers," said Fitzenberger. This would enable families to better reconcile work and childcare, he added, and allow women living with their partners to more easily return to full-time work to build their careers.
Are fewer working hours good for the climate?
It's difficult to measure whether a reduction in working hours will positively impact the climate. Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie, a Leipzig-based think tank, writes on its website that a four-day week "could also reduce the energy and resources consumed by industries and though commutes." Yet it also says that employees' individual carbon footprints will depend on their respective lifestyles.
Attracting potential employees
Although it's primarily employees who want a four-day week, companies stand to benefit, too. "Every company that offers a four-day week has a competitive advantage," said industrial psychologist Schade. According to her, a four-day week with reduced working hours, rather than an identical number of hours spread over just four days, is what makes companies attractive to potential employees. "In return, people will then be willing to put up with other things," said Schade.
Disadvantages of a four-day week
One disadvantage of the four-day week could be the tendency to squeeze more work into fewer working hours, says the economist Bernd Fitzenberger. When more has to be accomplished in less time, this causes more stress. Belgium's four-day model, for example, has employees doing 40 hours a week, spread over four days. As an alternative, they can reduce their number of working hours, which translates into less pay.
Productivity difficult to measure
The business community is also skeptical of the four-day week. Among other things, this is due to the challenge of measuring productivity, said Holger Schäfer, a researcher at Cologne's German Economic Institute (IW). The IW says it is difficult to ascertain exactly how the four-day week will influence companies' productivity.
The four-day week could also translate into higher costs for companies, said Fitzenberger. This, he says, could be the case "when reduced working hours or spreading working hours over just four days is not offset by productivity gains".
Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) worries that shorter working weeks will harm industrial competitiveness. "In view of the glaring shortage of skilled workers, proposing a four-day week is incomprehensible," FDP parliamentary group leader Christian Dürr told Funke Mediengruppe newspapers.
According to the economist Fitzenberger, however, this problem could be offset by companies making workflows more productive by introducing technological innovations. He does, however, wonder to which extent a four-day week will suit different industries.
Four-day week unsuitable to all industries
Some industries' schedules would also pose challenges for a four-day week.
"It becomes challenging in fields where services have to be provided in the here and now, at fixed times, for customers, or people who are being cared for," said Fitzenberger. A four-day week will therefore be more difficult to implement in nursing, when working for security services or transportation companies, he added. "If we were to rigidly implement a such a regulation across all industries in the same way, it could hurt competitiveness."
Change of perspective
The four-day week must be viewed from a long-term perspective, said occupational psychologist Schade. This is because fewer employees on sick leave will positively affect the economy further down the road, the expert said. Additionally, Schade said, it will take time for employees and companies to adjust to this new way of working. She admitted that "change always also entails risk," which triggers fears. But judging by a German survey from 2022, which found that three-quarters of respondents would welcome a four-day week at their companies, it is certainly popular. Employees younger than 40 are particularly interested in this model.