- The pandemic has accelerated support for a shorter workweek, as many now call for abandoning ‘hustle culture’ to find a better work-life balance.
- Some 71 percent of Americans say they support the concept of a four-day workweek, a poll for Newsweek shows, while 83 percent think they could complete their weekly workload in four days.
- American work culture remains focused on ‘busyness,’ which could represent an obstacle to the introduction of the shorter workweek.
- Many Americans work in retail, hospitality, manufacturing, and medical professions, where the need to have round-the-clock coverage might impede the implementation of a four-day system.
Americans are ready for a shorter workweek, the results of an exclusive Newsweek poll show. But HR and workforce experts say that such a revolution of the U.S. work schedule might not happen any time soon—if at all.
According to a survey run by Redfield & Wilton Strategies on behalf of Newsweek among a sample of 1,500 adults on March 7-8, 71 percent of Americans support the concept of a four-day workweek. Only 4 percent of respondents oppose it, while 22 percent neither support it nor oppose it. Three percent say they don’t know how they feel about it.
These figures reflect the increased support that the concept of a four-day workweek has garnered in recent years, accelerated by the pandemic—a time when many people across the world started reconsidering their work-life balance.
In a push to rethink the way we work, many have questioned whether we should stick to the five-day workweek—introduced by the Ford Motor Company in 1926 in the U.S. and later made into law by Congress in 1940—despite the fact that productivity has massively grown in the past century.
While the concept of a four-day workweek first emerged in the 1970s, the idea of working fewer hours while keeping the same salary remained a far-fetched dream for most workers for decades. But now, after the pandemic, the rise of remote work, and the gig economy challenged the 9-to-5 workday, hundreds of companies around the U.S., Canada, Australia, United Arab Emirates, and Europe, among others, have turned this dream into a reality for their employees.
Starting mostly from 2020, several companies around the world have tested the shorter workweek, with the U.K. holding the world’s biggest trial. Since then, many of these companies—including several in the U.S.—have decided not to return to their old routine.
But can the four-day workweek grow from being an experiment to becoming the standard in the U.S.?
The American Experience With the Shorter Workweek
In the U.S. alone, with California leading the way, dozens of companies have experimented with the four-day workweek in the past three years, closely monitoring its impact on workers’ wellbeing, happiness, efficiency, and productivity. Most of them have decided to make it a permanent feature after receiving enthusiastic feedback from employees and seeing positive growth and productivity achievements.
One of these companies was Massachusetts-based Knowledge Futures Group, an independent non-profit created as a partnership between MIT Press and MIT Media Lab. The company ran a 32-hour workweek trial in July 2021, after workers reported feeling “extremely fatigued and unproductive after over a year of working through the pandemic,” a spokesperson for the group told Newsweek.
At the heart of the company’s decision to implement the four-day workweek was the idea of improving workers’ productivity and happiness by taking away “external stressors”—the gnawing concern of when to find the time to tackle the outside-of-work obligations we all have in our lives.
By giving workers an extra day to take care of issues outside of work—like taking their kid or family member to the doctor, bringing the car to the mechanic—Knowledge Futures’ workers were able to be more focused and productive while at work.
This feedback matches the expectations of most Americans surveyed by Newsweek: some 49 percent of respondents to the poll believe that a shorter workweek would make workers more productive, while 83 percent think they could complete their weekly workload in just four days.
Knowledge Futures’ experience with the four-day workweek has been brilliant overall, the company said. “Employees pretty much unequivocally love the shorter week,” a spokesperson for the company told Newsweek.
“We’ve sent a series of surveys to employees since beginning the trial, and have seen durable increases in job satisfaction, work-life balance, connection to coworkers, and self-reported productivity. It’s also been a boon to hiring. We’ve been basically overwhelmed by applicants for every job we’ve posted since advertising ourselves as a four-day workweek company, and the quality of hires we’ve made has been excellent.”
A Deeply Ingrained Culture of Hustling and Busyness
While Americans say they’re ready to embrace the shorter workweek, the country’s work environment might struggle to catch up with their desires. American work culture, with its focus on hard work, competitiveness, and accomplishments, could represent a major obstacle to the introduction of the four-day workweek at a nationwide level, according to experts.
“Americans love to work,” Lindsey Cameron, an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, told Newsweek.
“Work is the new religion here. And I mean religion in the way that work gives us our sense of meaning, our purpose, our friends, who we date—it’s like the cornerstone of our life in the way that I think the Church used to be the cornerstone of people’s lives maybe 150 years ago,” she said.
Matthew Bidwell, a professor in Wharton’s Management Department who studies career patterns and staffing in the new economy, agreed with Cameron—and said that the importance work has in many people’s lives is something that should be considered in conversations about the shorter workweek.
“Work is very meaningful to a lot of people’s lives, and that’s probably something that gets lost a little bit in these conversations,” he told Newsweek. “I think often there is this feeling of saying, ‘Let’s work as little as we need to, in order to get by’—and there are definitely some people for whom the most important things for them are outside their work.
“But there are a lot of people for whom work is incredibly meaningful and they want to put a decent amount of time into their work, because it is a really important part of their life.”
This has, historically, been particularly true in the U.S.
“In general, the U.S. has a culture that values hard work and long hours, with many employees working more than 40 hours a week,” Mansoor Soomro, senior lecturer at the Teesside University International Business School in the U.K., told Newsweek. “However, there is also growing recognition that overwork can lead to burnout, decreased productivity, and negative health outcomes.”
One way to reconcile the idea of a shorter workweek with the culture of valuing long hours, said Soomro, would be to shift the focus from the number of hours worked to the quality and productivity of work.
“Our research has shown that working long hours does not necessarily equate to increased productivity,” he said. “In fact, multiple studies have found that productivity and creativity tend to decline after a certain point, suggesting that working fewer hours could actually lead to better work outcomes.”
This would ease concerns that, from an economic standpoint, a shorter workweek could negatively impact businesses and the broader economy. “Some argue that reducing the number of workdays could lead to a decrease in productivity and economic growth, while others suggest that increased leisure time could lead to increased spending and stimulate economic activity,” Soomro said.
Bidwell said he’s skeptical that in the long run the shorter workweek could be financially sustainable. While he believes that there are efficiency gains in moving to a four-day workweek, he doesn’t think they would be enough to compensate for the productivity that he’s sure would be lost by working fewer hours. The only way it would work, he thinks, is if people think having more free time is worth being paid less.
“I think there are some trade-offs to the number of days that we work and how much we get paid,” he said. “In the long run, if we move to a four-day work week, we won’t be paid as much, and wage growth will be lower. […] And it’s really unclear whether most people would prefer to work fewer days for less money or more days.”
The Advantage of Office Workers
When considering whether the four-day workweek could become the norm in the U.S., most experts point out that there’s one category for which this would do perfectly: office workers. Hospitality, retail, manufacturing, and medical workers, on the other hand—all professions which require workers to be physically present and for which coverage is essential—would have a much harder time convincing their managers to let them work fewer days, as this would likely mean hiring more personnel to make sure the job is done.
Cameron thinks that the four-day workweek is not a ‘one size fits all’ for all sectors and industries.
“It couldn’t be the norm, there’s too much going on in the U.S.,” she said. “I do think there are pockets of companies for which this will work really well—small to midsize companies that rely on knowledge workers who are actually able to benefit from taking away meetings, or compressing their time. But I also think that a big chunk of the U.S. economy does a different type of work, and they cannot use the four-day work week at all.”
She added: “I think there are certain companies that deal with a lot of knowledge workers, like small tech companies where the CEO/founder is still present in the company, that will be able to make the case for the four-day workweek. It’ll work really well there, but there are just certain segments of society or jobs where I don’t see this working as well.”
Cameron thinks that in jobs that require people to be physically present for long periods of time, a shorter workweek would be an unachievable dream.
“For some jobs that are not knowledge-intensive, that rely on somebody being there, which is basically any sort of lower paid work—that we commonly call ‘lower skilled’ in America even though it’s not lower skilled—they’re just not going to be able to do this,” she said. “I think there are some hospitals in the U.K. that have experimented with putting nurses on six-hour shifts, as opposed to 12-hour shifts—but you then have to add on more labor costs, because you need round-the-clock coverage.”
She added: “I think I’m hesitant that firms in the U.S. that rely on hourly labor would be willing to do that, because they’re already cutting costs so much for hourly labor.”
Cameron thinks that the four-day workweek could be very good for some organizations and some workers, but she also sees that, while it could mitigate inequality among some categories, it could exacerbate it among others. “Moving forward is going to take a plethora of interventions to figure out how we catch as many people as possible in this ‘era of prosperity or abundance’ or whatever we’re trying to work toward a better future. The four-day workweek obviously can’t be the right solution for every type of job,” she said.
But Bidwell sees an opportunity for anyone to introduce the shorter workweek. Those companies and organizations that need serving five days a week, or more, can shift to a sort of “teamworking,” Bidwell said, where “when you’re not around, there are people who are going to cover some of what you’ve done.”
“We can play with different shifts, patterns, different job shares, all of those sorts of things,” he said. “I don’t see that there are particular jobs where this is impossible.”