“You know that feeling when you have a holiday that landed on Monday or Friday and that long weekend felt incredible. Why wouldn’t you want to give that to your team every weekend?” asks Nate Reusser, President and owner of Reusser Design, an Indiana-based web design company that implemented a four-day work week in 2013.

“From a psychological standpoint, we want our team to be really healthy, both physically and mentally. The things that we can do mentally is give them the headspace and longer weekends to unwind and detach,” he adds.

But it was about more than just having happy, healthy workers. It had to make sense from a business perspective, and as far as Nate Reusser is concerned, it does.

The idea caught Reusser’s attention when he saw it discussed on a blogpost and he decided to give it a try.

“Every two months we sat down as a team and discussed the pros and cons, discussed if we felt we yielded more productivity,” he says.

That was six years ago. Since then, productivity seems to be up and, and another benefit, says Reusser, is that it gives the company an edge in terms of hiring and retention.

“You have a long weekend every weekend and you get your work done in four days. You just don’t want to go back to a company that doesn’t offer that,” he says.

The four-day work week has been catching the eye recently with a slew of global companies implementing various versions.

Some, like Reusser Design, have lengthened the other work days to make up for it, a so-called compressed working week.

Others have made a success of culling a work day from the week without adding the hours back on other days and without cutting pay.

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based financial services firm, implemented a four-day week last year following a two month trial. Employees work four eight-hour days but still get paid for five.

The company has seen a boost in worker productivity. An academic study conducted during the trial period noted an improvement in various measures of worker well-being, such as stress levels, work-life balance and work stimulation. Stress levels fell 15%, while engagement measures such as commitment rose 30-40%.

“There’s no downside,” said Andrew Barnes, Perpetual Guardian’s founder and managing director, who has been enthusiastically banging the drum for the four-day week.

Pursuit Marketing, a Glasgow-based telephone and digital marketing company, racked up a 30% rise in productivity during the two years after it cut a day off the work week with no drop in pay. It said this more than made up for the 20% fall in working hours.

How is that possible? “Parkinson’s Law” that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” could go some way to explaining it. Having less time to complete a task means less procrastination and over complication.

And then there’s the fact that tired, stressed workers get less done.

Research by John Pencavel at the University of Stanford shows that output begins to flatline above 50 hours per week and actually starts to fall beyond 60 hours.

Chart courtesy of John Pencavel at the University of Stanford

Conversely, satisfied employees are more productive. There is a strong correlation between employee satisfaction and various measures of company performance, such as profitability and productivity, as demonstrated by an analysis of Gallup studies by Christian Krekel, Assistant Professor in Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics.

Chart courtesy of Christian Krekel at the London School of Economics

Nate Reusser emphasises the importance of cultivating an environment conducive to deep concentration.

“If you don’t control the internal distractions, the meetings, the business within a normal workday, then I just don’t think employers are going to see the benefit of implementing something like this.”

Crucial to this is changing the way colleagues communicate in the workplace.

“What does that look like? You can’t talk to me if I’m wearing headphones, or if I have my Slack or communications set to “do not disturb”. There’s so much distraction in a normal workday that it is hard, even on a four-day work week, to yield those isolated periods without interruptions,” says Reusser.

“We’re all guilty of: “In 30 minutes if I don’t have an answer I’m just going to walk over and talk to Fred”. That would defeat the entire purpose. He’s concentrating on something, he’s doing problem solving or critical thinking, and then you go and interrupt him, he loses his whole train of thought.”

“We live in such an instant gratifying world of communication, when you don’t get an answer for more than fifteen to thirty minutes, you probably get pretty anxious, but I think we need to be OK with that in our workforce. “It’s OK, I’ll just wait a little longer, and set my day up so I don’t need those instant answers all the time,” he adds.

Working hours dropped dramatically in the hundred years up to the middle of the last century. In the US the weekly average fell from 62 hours in 1870 to just over 40 in the 1960s. However, there has been little change in the 50 years since then. In fact the US and UK have both seen an uptick in the last few decades.

Data source: Huberman & Minns (2007) via Our World in Data

Advocates argue that it’s time for working hours to resume their decline amid increasing automation and a greater awareness of the links between work hours, stress, mental health and productivity.

“We should work to live, not live to work,” said shadow chancellor John McDonnell at the Labour Party conference in September.

The UK’s main opposition party has promised it would slash the average working week by almost a quarter to 32 hours per week within a decade if it gets into government.

“As society got richer, we could spend fewer hours at work. But in recent decades progress has stalled and since the 1980s the link between increasing productivity and expanding free time has been broken. It’s time to put that right,” said McDonnell.

Mental Health

The mental health benefits of a shorter working week are particularly pertinent in light of the growing psychological challenges faced by society.

The UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) has called work-related stress a “growing epidemic”.

In the UK 15.4m working days were lost to work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2017/18, up 3m from the previous year and the highest in the two decades for which records are available, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Chart courtesy of the Health and Safety Executive

Deloitte estimates that poor mental health costs UK employers £33bn-42bn per year.

“A move towards a shorter working week could reduce stress and increase productivity, as well as enabling a better quality of rest and recuperation, which could in turn limit mental fatigue and lead to fewer sick days,” notes a report by think tank Autonomy.

Environmental Boon

Some proponents of a four-day week point to the environmental benefits of working one day less, which would cut commuting emissions and office energy use by a fifth.

The state of Utah implemented a compressed four-day week for state employees in 2007. It saved $1.8m in energy costs in the first ten months.

But the potential benefits extend beyond this. Studies have shown strong links between long working hours and carbon intensive behaviours, such as consumerism and weekend vacations.

One French study found that long hours “encourage goods and energy-intensive consumptions and favour conspicuous expenditure and non-sustainable lifestyles”.

Think tank Autonomy suggests:

“The increase in time outside of work could help shift consumer behaviour away from carbon intensive consumption, towards low-carbon ‘soft’ activities such as exercising, socialising, and investing in personal education.”

“Households could prepare homemade food instead of consuming energy-intensive ready-meals, and walk or cycle instead of drive.”

The Challenges

Unsurprisingly, implementing a four-day week is not without its challenges.

Some companies have considered a four-day week but deemed it unworkable. The Wellcome Trust, a UK science research foundation was exploring the feasibility of a four-day work week as a way of improving staff welfare and productivity. However, it finally “concluded that it is too operationally complex to implement.”

Sleighdogs, a Berlin-based web developer, conducted a summer trial of a four-day work week. Output held steady and overall the feedback from staff was positive, with 91% reporting feeling happier. Staff put their free Fridays to all sorts of uses, from doing coding courses to playing Fifa and drinking beer to preparing a beef birthday cake for a pet cat’s birthday.

However, the workforce did not benefit equally during the trial. Some enjoyed every Friday off while others did not get a single free Friday.  The company said the change “put even more load on our bottlenecks”, with managers required to “communicate with our clients more… and push harder for a steady output”.

“In the grand scheme of things, everything seemed to have worked out fine, however, zooming in uncovered some serious long-term threats,” said Sleighdogs.

Synergy Vision, a UK medical communications consultancy, this month finalised a four-day week following a six month trial. Staff work a day less for the same pay.

Synergy staff approval of the four-day week dipped in the second month amid a few “teething troubles”. But the PR agency said “simple measures answered the problem, including nominating one ‘core day’ a week when everyone works, shared inboxes, and improved booking and tracking systems and resource planning.”

Despite some initial trepidation among clients, the company said “none have reported any concerns as a result of the new working patterns”.

The challenges to implementing a four-day week differ across industries. Sectors such as hospitality and the gig economy in particular face snags. As the idea spreads, no doubt more obstacles, and more solutions will emerge.

Six years after he first implemented it, Nate Reusser is convinced that a four-day work week is the way forward. “I would say it’s going to be a commonplace thing pretty soon.”