Last Friday, CNN Money published a story about a company in New Zealand that was about to implement a four-day work week policy after a two-month trial of the idea produced “resounding success.”
Over the weekend, a couple more U.S. new outlets picked up the story, inspiring a curious discussion of whether it’s possible to transplant that idea into American workplaces. After all, the whole concept of living life in repeated seven-day intervals is completely man-made. Why should we confine ourselves further to a fixed five-and-two split?
Andrew Barnes, CEO of Perpetual Guardian, the New Zealand company in the news, said that having employees work four days a week instead of five led to a “motivated, energized, stimulated, loyal workforce” and that it could be “a revolutionary way to work” for other workplaces as well.
For anyone who thinks it’s impossible to institute the four-day work week in the U.S., you should know that the modern-day standard of the five-day work week was barely “standard” until very recently.
A brief historical recap: The concept of working Monday through Friday was invented by a New England factory in 1908. Until then, American workers only took full Sundays off for Christian worship. The factory owner first offered two-day weekends to Jewish workers so they could observe a Saturday Sabbath and wouldn’t have to make up work on Sundays, which offended some in the Christian majority. The owner later extended the two-day weekend to all workers, and more employers followed suit.
But, it wasn’t until after the Great Depression in the 1930s did the five-day work week become a societal norm in the U.S.—and much later did non-Christian countries follow the example.
China, for instance, didn’t institute the five-day work week until 1995 (reportedly as a condition to join the WTO); Japan gradually introduced the work plan between 1980 and 2000 (Many schools still open half day on Saturdays); many Muslim countries have the Friday-Saturday weekend to allow time for religious worship; and in some countries, like Mexico and India, people still work Monday through Saturday.
Suggestions to reduce the five-day week aren’t new, either.
Google co-founder Larry Page has apparently considered the four-day work week. Owen Jones, a labor issue columnist for The Guardian, has passionately advocated for the same idea. Not to mention, there’s plenty of academic research that shows the benefits of working shortened weeks.
In practice, though, the four-day work week is not always as great as on paper, at least in the U.S.
Unlike Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand, which cares less about “the [number] of hours you spend in the office” and more about “what we get out of that,” according to Barnes, American bosses definitely care about hours. Working four days instead of five? Fine. But you’ve still got to put in 40 hours a week!
Symphony Space, a performing arts organization based in New York, allows employees to work either regular five-day weeks or four 10-hour days a week.
David Stevens, a management consultant, said in a 2014 LinkedIn post that one of his old employers had a similar policy. The company had two teams work separate four-day shifts, one from Monday to Thursday and the other from Tuesday to Friday, so the company could conduct business five days a week like most companies do. But both teams had to work 10-hour days.
Longer hours as a result of fewer work days are a primary concern of the critics of the four-day work week.
“The primary problem with the idea is that whatever work needs to be done, needs to get done in the same amount of total time,” Allard Dembe, a public health professor at Ohio State University, wrote in an article for The Conversation in 2016.
“Working five eight-hour shifts is equivalent to working four 10-hour shifts. That’s true. But the implications of these schedules are different. The danger is in disregarding the health effects that can occur as a result of fatigue and stress that accumulate over a longer-than-normal working day,” he explained.
Obviously that’s not a problem in other countries.
In the Netherlands, for instance, the four-day (eight hours per day) work week is already a norm, According to Dutch government statistics cited by CNN, an average full-time worker in the Netherlands works only 29 hours a week.
In comparison, Americans work 47 hours a week, and many want to work even harder.