Four-day workweek has no negative impact on productivity, major study finds

A major new study out of the UK shows that a four-day workweek is just as good as a five-day workweek for employers and improves employee wellbeing.
John Loeffler
A woman working at home

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers and employers alike have been interested in the idea of a four-day workweek, and now, a new study gives even more reason for employers everywhere to give the idea a serious look.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, supported by researchers at Boston College (BC) and the think tank Autonomy, worked with 61 companies and organizations in the UK to implement a 20% reduction in working hours over a six-month trial.

How this reduction was implemented varied across a diverse set of industries, from restaurants to IT and finance companies, but the vast majority of them retained the same productivity targets as they had before the trial and did not reduce pay or benefits in response to the reduction of hours.

The new report, published by Autonomy this week, found that the reduction in hours substantially improved employee well-being, with 71% of employees reporting lower levels of burnout and 39% reporting lower levels of stress than before the trial.

What's more, there was a 65% reduction in sick days and a 57% reduction in staff turnover at the participating companies compared to the same period from the previous year.

“It was common for employees to describe a significant reduction in stress,” said Niamh Bridson Hubbard, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge. “Many described being able to switch off or breathe more easily at home. One person told us how their ‘Sunday dread’ had disappeared.”

In addition to improved employee outcomes, participating businesses recorded a 1.4% increase in revenue on average, 92% of the participating companies plan to keep a four-day workweek in place, and 18 companies confirmed that they would be permanently moving to a four-day workweek going forward.

“We feel really encouraged by the results," Dr. David Frayne, a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement announcing the study's results, "which showed the many ways companies were turning the four-day week from a dream into realistic policy, with multiple benefits.”

Concerns over lower productivity put to rest

This new study is the largest of its kind, measuring the well-being of 2,900 employees and 61 companies.

Joe Ryle, Director of the 4 Day Week Campaign in the UK, hopes that the new report would put concerns about the efficacy of a reduced workweek to rest: “Across a wide variety of different sectors of the economy, these incredible results show that the four-day week actually works.”

Cambridge researcher professor Brendan Burchell, who led the University of Cambridge side of the research, agrees: “Before the trial, many questioned whether we would see an increase in productivity to offset the reduction in working time – but this is exactly what we found."

“Many employees were very keen to find efficiency gains themselves," Burchell said. "Long meetings with too many people were cut short or ditched completely. Workers were much less inclined to kill time, and actively sought out technologies that improved their productivity.”

While similar studies in the US and Ireland have reported similar results, the UK study is both the largest conducted, but also the first to include extensive interviews with participants.

“The method of this pilot allowed our researchers to go beyond surveys and look in detail at how the companies were making it work on the ground,” Frayne said.

A middle ground for employers

Even before the trial, many employers have been looking at the ways they structure work, especially in response to the pandemic.

Many have resisted an entirely work from home structure out of concerns that it will reduce company culture, but there is also a greater understanding of the circumstances their employees face.

“I hated the pandemic," one CEO from a non-profit organization that participated in the trial said, "but it’s made us see each other much more in the round, and it’s made us all realize the importance of having a healthy head, and that family matters."

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