A four-day workweek pilot study in the U.K. was so successful recently that most companies in the experiment decided to keep the shortened week. Robert Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the director of the Project for Middle Class Renewal, a research-based initiative tasked with investigating labor policies in today’s economy. Bruno, the author of the forthcoming book “What Work Is,” spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the idea of shortening the workweek.
Is the five-day workweek a relic of the past? Should it be reduced to four days per week with no reduction in pay, as in the U.K. experiment?
The five-day workweek is long overdue for an overhaul. To be fair, the workweek has come down substantially from the Industrial Revolution era, when 12- and 16-hour days, 7 days a week, were common. Weekends weren’t really a thing until labor unions brought them and the 40-hour week to the working class.
But there hasn’t been much progress since then. The U.S. came close to a 30-hour workweek at the beginning of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. The U.S. Senate in 1933 passed bipartisan legislation reducing the workweek to six hours a day, five days a week, just before Roosevelt took office.
FDR initially supported the bill, but eventually got cold feet and was pressured by business interests to table it. Some unions, like the United Auto Workers, tried unsuccessfully to negotiate 30-hour workweeks into their contracts. Then, all of a sudden, that momentum just vanished, and 40 hours per week, five days a week, has been the standard ever since. Since at least 1989, the mean number of weekly working hours has exceeded 40 every year.
So we really haven’t made much headway on the scope of work in our daily routines in almost a century. Meanwhile, work has continued to seep into other corners of our lives via email and our smartphones, even though the promise of better technology has always been linked to fewer hours at work and more leisure time. Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted the inevitably of an even shorter 15-hour workweek. That prediction was just a little off. If anything, work has become more omnipresent in our lives, and this experiment with companies in the U.K. is a reaction to that.
How realistic would a four-day workweek be in the U.S., with its culture of long hours and overwork?
It would certainly be an adjustment to traditional work in the U.S., that’s for sure. But quite frankly, a lot of work isn’t “traditional work” anymore, where you clock in and clock out like Fred Flintstone. We’re seeing a rise in contingent or gig-based work that doesn’t get anywhere near full-time hours. So for a certain sector of the population it wouldn’t make much of a difference.
But for people who work full-time, we really need to revisit the workweek and the length of time people work each day and week, because, cumulatively, the emotional and physical consequences of full-time employment is really taking its toll on our workforce in just about every sector of the economy. Seemingly every major industry – whether it’s health care, education, retail, you name it – is experiencing a burnout crisis among its employees. They call the workweek “the grind” for a reason.
In other words, shortening the workweek is not an idea that should automatically be dismissed because certain business leaders, politicians or thought leaders don’t like it. Allowing for a healthy amount of work-life balance so that you don’t have high levels of burnout and worker dissatisfaction would be extraordinarily good for employees and their families and would do wonders for the economy.
All the existing research about working fewer hours for the same pay shows that workers would be happier and more efficient at their jobs. This study in the U.K. has really pulled the curtain back and showed that it’s a win-win for employers and employees.
Did the COVID-19 pandemic pave the way for this reboot of the working week?
There was a brewing burnout crisis among workers before the COVID-19 pandemic. But what the pandemic showed is that you could alter the fundamentals of how, when and where some work was performed and the worker will adapt. Work is very important to people and their sense of self. It’s amazing how much people pour themselves into their work, even at minimum-wage jobs. The vast majority of workers take pride in what they do because it speaks to who they are.
So I think we can just do away with this ridiculous assumption that working fewer hours equals less productivity. The truth is, most workers are going to self-regulate because their work means too much to them. Work is interwoven into their identity. They just need a little more breathing room, that’s all.
How equitable would a four-day work week be? It might be a boon to white-collar office workers, but what about nurses, construction workers, teachers and the potential that creates for a two-tier employment system?
It would be a challenge for certain industries in the U.S. to adapt to a shortened workweek for a number of different reasons, but it wouldn’t be impossible. Those industries would just have to get a little more creative, a little more efficient. And I guess that’s why this experiment from the U.K. is worth examining in greater depth. It would also be a good idea for U.S. companies to conduct their own pilot programs in different industries and occupations, so that people could get a better sense of what it would be like to work fewer hours, to see how viable it would be.
For teachers, would it be better to work a shorter week year round and trim back on summer break? Perhaps. For nurses and doctors, would working fewer overall hours reduce burnout and compassion fatigue? Again, it’s possible. And if employees weren’t compelled to work as many hours to earn a decent income, it’s likely more people could be hired without hurting the bottom line.
We won’t know until we break free from the notion in America that the five-day workweek is sacrosanct. My hunch is that a shortened workweek would produce far better outcomes and would prove to be very popular without a loss of productivity.