Four day work week?  Maybe not so fast…

As many of you know at NEP we are all for working smarter not harder. We have always been about getting outcomes rather than just looking busy, so naturally we are following this 4 day work week research and discussion with interest…

Questions like – is a four day work week more productive? Is a four day work week better for mental health? Does a four day work week reduce burnout? These are all interesting questions and worthy of a closer look.

So while it is early days in the robust research scheme of things, preliminary trials are suggesting this could be the way forward. But before we all throw caution to the wind and start booking our long weekends, here are few things to consider……..

Systemic reasons for burnout should be addressed

Is the four day work week a band-aid solution for a gunshot wound?

Interestingly many of the reasons cited by companies for moving to a four day work week include “it forces people to spend less time in meetings and to work out ways to work smarter not harder” – yep that’s an actual quote from a large global company that has made the move!

Is it just me or is anyone else thinking – ummm shouldn’t they have been spending less time in meetings, and working smarter not harder, even when they were working 5 days a week?!

Surely if they had put that into practice over five days, their work may feel easier and they might not be desperate to get their work week down to four days?

If you don’t get to the end of the work day with energy left over, maybe you really need to question how you are structuring your work to meet your outcomes.

Hours worked aren’t really the issue – it’s how you manage your energy throughout the day that matters.

If you aren’t structuring your work properly – then sure it’s way better to only be exhausted for four days instead of five. I totally get that. But isn’t the bigger question why are people exhausted working five days a week? And therefore how do we make those five days feel far easier as the first step?

Two of the biggest reasons that we see as to why people are exhausted is:

  1. They spend so much time in ineffective meetings during the week that they are trying to work on heavy cognitive tasks at the time when they don’t have the cognitive energy. Less time in meetings will mean that they can better optimise their cognitive energy and therefore will crush through more in less time and it will feel easier.
  2. People are sick of having things dumped on them at the last minute. If this is happening over five days, it’s hard to fathom that this will be fixed when trying to get through everything in four days.

So surely we should be looking at fixing these systemic issues on a five day a week model before we try to cram everything into four days and feel completely exhausted by those four days.

Organisations should also be asking…

Is it possible to fit your heavy cognitive work into four days? 

Given that neuroscience suggests that we have on average 4 hours a day of heavy cognitive energy available to us each day, that’s 20 hours per week over a five day week. If that matches the amount of heavy cognitive work that we have to get done in a week – that now means we need to get through 5 hours of heavy cognitive work each day over a four day week.

That feels harder. As an example, when I was doing my Masters in Psychology and Neuroscience of Mental Health, I found it far easier to study smaller amounts over  seven days a week, than to do it in fewer days, due to the cognitive load required (on top of my very full time job). Two hours of study on the weekend mornings only took two hours instead of 3-4 hours required if I didn’t have fresh cognitive energy available to me.

I can’t imagine having to squeeze that into far fewer days. My brain hurts just thinking about that.

What is the impact of a four day week on clients and customers? 

Depending on the nature of the work, clients and customers might be totally fine with having access to you for four days – others not so much. How often would you love to get some life admin done on the weekend but you can’t as it’s not possible on the weekend? Imagine if you now have to squeeze that life admin into your new four day working week (along with your usual five day workload), because everyone else is also enjoying a four day week?

Is it better for mental health to have a four day work week? 

Or will cramming everything into four days potentially increase stress?

Is it just me or are those four days suddenly sounding very stressful – I guess you would need an extra day off to recover from those four days. It’s feeling like a bit of a chicken and egg situation now?!

If people are already experiencing work flow issues with dumping work on people at the last minute, I’m not totally sure how only have four days to co-ordinate work will make that part feel easier if we don’t fix the underlying issues of why the work is being dumped on people at the last minute.

Time and more research will tell if the four day work week has legs. I suspect the short answer to this will be…… it depends.

However, regardless of the number of days works, the systemic reasons for burnout should be firstly be recognised and very much respected. Before we bring out the “bandaids”, there are much better ways of working to avoid burnout.

Again, the hours worked are rarely the issue, it’s how we get to manage our cognitive energy every day that plays a major role in avoiding burnout.

We are helping leaders and teams to remove the systemic causes of burnout. If you would like to have a no obligation chat to help you think more deeply about your current performance culture, and what would be possible if you and your team could elevate to your next level, why not book your Performance Call.