4-day work week can cure 'burnout society', but it's complicated – experts

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The 2022 experiments showed that people worked more efficiently on a four-day work week and revenues of participating companies grew by 8%.
The 2022 experiments showed that people worked more efficiently on a four-day work week and revenues of participating companies grew by 8%.
Dragon Claws
  • One of the questions in this year's World Economic Forum was:  can a four-day work week work?
  • The 2022 experiments showed that people worked more efficiently, and participating companies' revenues grew by 8%.
  • Experts say that given that we are now a burnt-out society after the pandemic, this is a no-brainer, but what about healthcare workers and people paid per hour?
  • For more financial news, go to the News24 Business front page.

A successful four-day work week experiment in the UK and other developed countries showed workers' burnout and stress levels decreased while participating companies' revenues climbed up 8%. This begs the question: could it become more than just an experiment?

That is what employers, government representatives, trade unions and strategists attending the World Economic Forum in Davos had to grapple with on Thursday. But the answer is more complex than a yes or no.

The experiment, organised by the 4 Day Week SA Coalition, is also coming to South Africa this February. The reason for scaling it to other countries is that the 2022 experiment proved that the pace of work goes up as people work faster to finish five days' worth of work in four days. They worked more efficiently, with meetings in countries like the Netherlands cut down to a maximum of 15 minutes.

"This is not because you want to be a charity or something like that. This is a business imperative," said the CEO of a global talent company, Sander van't Noordende.

His business, Randstad, has trained thousands of companies on how to retain and attract talent. He said flexibility is no longer negotiable because key talent is scarce. In a recent survey his company conducted, 50% of people said they were willing to quit their jobs if they were not happy at work. He believes since many people experienced flexibility during the pandemic, they are now thirsty for it.

"You should almost start to treat your talent as your customer. You ask [customers] what they want. [So you should] try to [do] the best possible job for your customer," he said.

Karien van Gennip, the minister of social affairs and employment of the Netherlands, said this could be the tool the world has been waiting for to shift more unpaid care work to men who often spend more time at work than females if a four-day week is made mandatory.

"Also, what we see today is we are running quickly into a burnout society," she said.

READ | Return to normal office occupancy unlikely over the next few years - here's why

In the Netherlands, 40% of people presenting to public healthcare are there because of mental problems. Van Gennip said most of these cases are a result of burnout.

While people desired flexibility, working from home has created a 24/7 work culture where people receive work-related emails and texts late into the night. This is compounded by the growing trend of remote work, where teams are made up of people from different time zones.

"You get a work email at nine o'clock at night when you're putting your kids to bed, and it really throws [you] off," she added.

Van Gennip said while some countries have legislated the right to disconnect, many workers are in such a poor mental health state that they need more than that.

But can a country's economy survive if everyone worked reduced hours a week? What about healthcare and services workers in places like restaurants who often work seven days a week? How will this affect low-income earners who get paid by the hour? These are the questions the panellists had to try to find answers to.

"That's a discussion that we need to have because if we look at the amount of work that's ahead of us, whether it's climate education or healthcare, we cannot afford for everybody to go to a lower number of hours and produce the same productivity," conceded Van Gennip.

What are the solutions?

The general secretary of UNI Global Union, Christy Hoffman, said it's not so much about the number of days people work - it's about more flexibility to have lives outside of work.

The feeling is different in the US, where many people work more than five days a week and don't enjoy as much paid leave as in other countries. But even there, when she talks to low-wage female workers, they want better scheduling of their shifts that allow will allow them to get childcare. They are happy to work 15-hour shifts, as long as they can get time off when they don't have childcare.

Then there are high-skilled, highly-paid workers willing to work 24 hours to meet deadlines but then be able to take the next week off, said Hoffman.

"We [also] have to think about that 22% of the world's workers who aren't working a full-time job. And that does not include the informal economy…We just need to have some negotiations over this," she added.

But one solution everyone agreed on was that meetings have to be shorter and less frequent if this four-day thing becomes a reality.

It will also defeat the purpose if people send work-related meetings after hours and on that fifth day. So, it would be better to schedule them for when the recipient returns to work.

"Most managers spend more than half their week in meetings; many of them find them unproductive," said US author and professor, Adam Grant.

"We have seen during the four-day work week trials that meetings became shorter and more efficient. I think there's a great question to be raised here about why we are meeting," he added.

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