Gary Martin: Why a four-day work week just doesn’t add up

Gary Martin
The Nightly
4 Min Read
A four-day work week might not deliver the benefits many hope for.
A four-day work week might not deliver the benefits many hope for. Credit: Rido - stock.adobe.com

What do you get when you cut a standard full-time workload from 1800 to 1440 hours annually but still expect the same output from employees?

The answer is a frazzled, disengaged and stretched-thin workforce grappling with tighter deadlines and higher stress.

Yet four-day work week advocates seem to gloss over these realities, painting a too-optimistic picture while ignoring the potential fallout.

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Later this month, 30 Australian companies will participate in a four-day work week experiment, organised by 4 Day Week Global, by trialling a 30-hour week while maintaining full pay.

Although employees will work 7.5 hours less each week – the equivalent of 360 hours over one year – they will be expected to deliver the same level of productivity on a weekly basis.

It is easy to see why organisations are keen to examine this latest trend in workplace flexibility.

The four-day work week has been heralded as a panacea for virtually all of the modern workplace’s ailments.

Gary Martin.
Gary Martin. Credit: Andrew Ritchie/The West Australian

The model has received acclaim, albeit with some scepticism, for reversing dips in productivity, elevating employee engagement, enhancing mental wellbeing and delivering the type of flexibility that workers can only dream off.

But the evidence to back up these proclaimed benefits is as superficial as daily conversations about the weather because of the lack of depth and substance.

Closer examination will see the alleged advantages of striking a day out of the traditional five-day work week fall away faster than the enthusiasm for a meeting that runs over time.

Increased stress, anxiety and burnout top the list of concerns.

The suggestion that employees, already overwhelmed by significant workloads, should complete their tasks in shorter timeframes contradicts the growing consensus on the need for improved work-life balance and the prioritisation of mental health.

Squeezing a five-day workload into four days often results in longer working hours, potentially leading to increased fatigue and a higher risk of burnout compared to a traditional work week.

Rather than benefiting from an additional day off, employees might find this time merely serves as a period of recuperation, negating the intended advantage of having an extra day for rest and personal activities.

Also consider the issue of productivity.

It is improbable that workers with heavy workloads could maintain or enhance productivity under reduced hours.

There is an increasing consensus among researchers that any benefits linked to the four-day work week might be fleeting.

Not only is the reduction of a work week by one-fifth likely to challenge the feasibility of achieving the same work output, it will almost certainly compromise quality.

It’s worth noting too that the promised flexibility of a four-day work week often fails to materialise in practice.

A quick look under the bonnet of the four-day week to examine the inner workings will undermine the façade of flexibility.

Embracing a four-day work week requires strict adherence to pre-determined working days and hours to ensure productivity does not plummet given that fewer hours are available to get the job done.

There is no dashing off to see the kids perform at a school assembly during work time, you cannot leave the office for that check-up at the dentist and forget about urgent online banking at your desk to pay an overdue bill.

And those who are under the impression a four-day work week means a long weekend every week will be bitterly disappointed.

Some employees will be required to take their extra day off on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday so that a business can continue to operate.

Particularly concerning is that our current understanding of the four-day work week largely arises from small-scale studies involving a limited number of organisations and people.

There is an increasing consensus among researchers that any benefits linked to the four-day work week might be fleeting.

As the novelty of a compressed week wears off, employees are expected to gradually revert to their traditional working habits.

All of this suggests we ought to consider other types of flexible work arrangements rather than racing to embrace an initiative that remains largely unproven.

Most workers are not against the traditional five-day schedule – many already stretch their hours across more than five days in a week.

Options like remote and hybrid work, nine-day fortnights and reduced daily hours might offer better solutions.

And offering employees extra paid leave beyond their standard entitlements, to be used at their discretion, could better accommodate individual needs and deserves attention.

Personalised flexibility, rather than the uniform “one size fits all” approach of the four-day work week model, better reflects the direction many organisations are likely to pursue.

Those who end up taking the four-day work week plunge are likely to be let down by lofty promises of wholesale workplace improvements.

While the concept of a four-day work week might have clocked in with high hopes, it is time to punch out on a concept that cannot do the job as promised.

It is only a matter of time before employers begin to focus on more effective strategies that will not leave productivity, engagement, flexibility and wellbeing on an extended leave of absence.

Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA

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