Can the four-day week tackle employee burnout?

Last week organisations in the UK launched a four-day week trial with no loss of pay for their staff, which will last six months.

The world’s biggest trial of a four-day work week has started with 70 companies and 3,300 employees participating. The aim of the 4-Day Week UK Pilot Programme is to measure productivity and wellbeing of staff over six months as they work a day less on the understanding of delivering similar outcomes, as well as the impact on the environment and gender equality.

One of the first four-day workweek trials took place at Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand and the results showed that job performance remained unchanged when reducing working hours, with improvements in staff attendance and work-life balance. In Iceland, a 2,500 employee trial by the government and Reykjavík City Council showed similar outcomes - productivity remained the same, employees’ psychological and physical health improved, and stress and burnout decreased.

Rebalancing work and life

Research tells us that no matter what we do, taking a holistic, long-term focus on the well-being of the workforce is the best path to both happiness and prosperity. Whilst the pandemic-induced changes to work-life balance have brought increased flexibility to where employees work, bigger workloads reduced the opportunity and time to recover. We are now seeing higher volumes of employee burnout, with 62 percent of employees reporting that they had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” and 67 percent agreeing that stress and burnout had increased since the pandemic.

To tackle these high-workload, always-on cultures, initiatives such as the four-day workweek, remote and hybrid working, or unlimited paid time off have been gaining in popularity. However, it is important to ask whether to expect already stretched employees to manage existing workloads with one fewer day a week and understand the need for leadership support.

Reducing working hours doesn’t necessarily reduce workload and research suggest that the extent to which people like to remain connected out-of-hours is often based on individual differences; and that people with more intensive workloads tend to ruminate about work outside of working hours and are unable to switch off until their work problems have been solved. On the other hand, some employees want to be able to check in on work and keep connected because it worries them more when they do not have oversight of what is going on and feel lack of involvement.

The leadership challenge

For a four-day workweek to be successful, it is critical for leaders to shift their mindsets to value actual productivity, instead of the number of hours worked. They must ensure that employees aren’t worried they will be penalised for prioritising work-life balance, and that starts with modelling a healthier work-life balance themselves. Leaders also need to embrace the uncertainty that comes with trying out a new initiative, including the acceptance that some people won’t like the changes.

It is also important to reflect on what is the goal of a four-day workweek. Shortening the working week alone won’t resolve employees’ concerns, particularly if they have negative work experiences, don’t feel psychologically safe, or do not perceive the organisational culture as inclusive. Research by Gallup shows that employees working four days reported less burnout and higher well-being, yet the proportion of actively disengaged employees was higher. Leaders need be aware that for employees who are less concerned about how many hours they work, but dissatisfied with the environment they work in, shortening the week could make employees feel even more disconnected from their jobs.

The four-day work week has emerged as a new perk to address the Great Resignation, however there could be more to the incentive than just attracting quality new hires and rewarding loyal employees.

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