A new survey of American workers shows two thirds wanting to work a shorter week compared to the conventional five days. But less than one fifth of workplaces offer the opportunity. Yet a progressively shortening work week was once the norm in industrialised societies, and evidence suggests that longer hours are less productive while shorter weeks bring a wide range of benefits. And, in some places, the option of at least a four day week is now taken for granted. Responding to a recession in the early 1990s, the public sector in the Netherlands began offering a four-day week to staff to save money. Since then it has spread and become common employment practice, with the option offered to workers in all sectors of the economy.

As a result, job-sharing has become the norm in the health and education sectors. It is common to have part-time surgeons, engineers and bankers making the much hyped work-life balance in modern industrial economies a practical reality. It’s not just liberal Northern Europe that’s seen the benefits of shorter working weeks. In the United States, in the midst of the financial crisis in 2008 – faced with recession, rapidly rising energy prices, growing lines at food banks, rising unemployment and mortgage foreclosures – instead of simply bringing a knife to public spending and pushing austerity measures, Jon Hunstman, Utah’s Republican governor, surprised people with an experiment to save money. At only a month’s notice, 18,000 of the state’s 25,000 workforce were put on a four-day week and around 900 public buildings closed on Fridays.

Wider relevance

The idea of a shorter working week has been a long-standing aim of social progress and one that has developed despite, rather than because, of the predictions of economists. The weekend has extended, thanks to social pressure on employers, from a half day to one and a half days, and finally to two days. J.M. Keynes predicted that with the logic of progressive economic, social and technological developments, by the 21st Century we would be working typically just a 15-hour week. The rest of our time would be devoted to the art of living. But instead of productivity leading to economic benefits liberating people from labour, in industrialised countries a combination of inequality and consumer culture has resulted instead in a combination of over-consumption and precarious work for many on low pay and long hours.

The advent of zero-hour contracts, all in the name of flexibility, threaten to remove even historically hard-won time off. In practice, time off has normally come via decisions by the church (Saints days) or by legislation, like Sir John Lubbock’s Bank Holidays Act in 1872. Now, however, interest in shifting to the norm of a shorter working week is rising again. Partly this is in response to economic necessity, but partly also through active choice and the discovery by both employers and employees of mutual benefits. Redistribution of paid work tackles the twin problems of overwork and unemployment, broadening access to the good things of being in work whilst moderating the worse aspects. Changes need to be backed however by supporting measures such as there being proper child care services available, affordable housing and living wages.

In the Netherlands the shift created conditions for greater equality at home and in the workplace between men and women. In the Utah experiment, it led to lower staff absentee rates, higher staff morale, an improvement in public experience of services and a significant carbon reduction resulting from closing buildings and using much of the vehicle fleet for one less day per week.

Context and Background

The main context for this kind of experiment is usually the need to save money, as in the case of Utah, or to save energy as in the case of the emergency Three Day Week, enacted by the UK Heath government in 1973-4. While it lasted, there were only marginal falls in production, confirming other cases which suggest that the benefits of working fewer hours can easily outweigh the challenges of making the transition – and helps demonstrate that people compensate for the time off, either because they are less jaded or exhausted or because they believe in what they are doing.

Enabling factors

Almost certainly, this is because people have complex lives and they want to work more flexibly. The Dutch example saw one in three men either work part time or compress their hours, working five days in four to enjoy a three-day weekend. Three quarters of women now work part time. The popularity of the different pattern is such that 96 percent of part time workers do not want to work longer hours. In Utah, eight out of ten employees liked it and wanted it to continue. Nearly two thirds said it made them more productive, and many said it reduced conflict both at home and at work. Workplaces across the state reported higher staff morale and lower absenteeism. There were other surprises. One in three among the public thought the new arrangements actually improved access to services. It wasn’t the main objective, but at a stroke the four-day week also reduced carbon emissions by 14 percent, a huge annual, climate-friendly saving. In a sign of the growing appeal of the idea, in 2013, the Gambia introduced a four-day week. In the United Kingdom, the head of the Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Grady has said, “I believe that in this century, we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone.” When a company in New Zealand with 240 employees introduced a four day week, whilst still paying staff for five days, and studied the results, they found that overall performance was unaffected, in other words their productivity increased. The staff did just as much in four days as they had done previously in five. And there were other reported changes: work life balances were better, and staff attendance and punctuality improved alongside greater creativity in carrying out their jobs. In a move that might delight anyone with experience of office work, they were able to reduce the length of meetings that had taken two hours down to 30 minutes.

Scope and evidence

  • In the Netherlands, the take up and re-arrangement of public sector working took place very quickly, to keep institutions open. The private sector has been slower but now has the same benefits.
  • Dutch laws promote a work-life balance and protect part-time workers. All workers there are entitled to fully paid vacation days, maternity and paternity leave. A law passed in 2000 also gives workers the right to reduce their hours to a part-time schedule, while keeping their job, hourly pay, health care and pro-rated benefits.
  • Overall, the entire workforce averages around 29 hours a week – the lowest of any industrialized nation, according to the OECD. Even though hugely popular, the experiment in Utah fell victim to a change of administration, although it continued and was copied in some areas.