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Can a four-day workweek help women? More companies are trying it out

Proponents of the shortened workweek say the change has also fostered a more open, compassionate culture in their workplaces. Photo: File

Proponents of the shortened workweek say the change has also fostered a more open, compassionate culture in their workplaces. Photo: File

Published Dec 27, 2021

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IF YOU email an employee of International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC) on a Friday, no matter who you get in touch with, you will receive the same out-of-office response:

"Thank you for your message. To promote more equitable workplaces and support its staff, from December 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is piloting a four-day workweek," the automated response says. "For this reason, our office will be closed on Fridays."

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The human rights non-profit's message also includes links to research on the benefits of short workweeks, before wishing the emailer "a restful end to your week."

Elizabeth Silkes, executive director of ICSC, said the policy was created in response to the struggles her mostly female staff was facing after a year of working during the pandemic, when the boundaries between work life and personal life had crumbled.

"Our staff members have care responsibilities that go far beyond their work life and we were all exhausted," Silkes said. "We were doing more and more work and finding that we didn't have the downtime we needed to find restoration."

"I was thinking about resilience," added Silkes, who is a single mom. "I'm a much better parent when my attention can be focused on my teenager. I'm a much better executive director when I can focus on work."

ICSC is among a small but growing number of organisations that have pivoted to a four-day workweek in an attempt to address pandemic burnout and promote better work-life balance. Proponents of the shortened workweek say the change has also fostered a more open, compassionate culture in their workplaces.

These changes could be particularly beneficial for women. For many, flexibility could mean the difference between staying in a job or leaving it, experts say.

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As the pandemic continues to reshape work values and priorities, employees, companies and -- in some cases -- countries are thinking more critically about how we work and how it affects our well-being.

Researchers have also been interested in this question.

A widely-cited study from Iceland found that reducing work hours while keeping pay steady increased productivity. It also lessened rates of burnout among employees, who reported higher levels of well-being.

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Shortened workweeks can also be applied to jobs that require manual, in-person labour.

Workplace consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of "Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less," documented the case of a Virginia nursing home that transitioned from a 40-hour workweek to a 30-hour one to help improve retention (the pay remained the same). Although more nursing assistants had to be hired, the facility saved money on recruitment expenses and overtime pay, had better call-bell response times and reported lower numbers of falls and skin tears for residents, according to the Atlantic magazine.

But a 2021 Gallup poll comparing the well-being of people who worked four, five and six-day workweeks complicated that rosy picture. In March 2020, Gallup asked 10,364 full-time employees the number of days they typically worked. Just 5% said they work four days a week, while 84% said five days and 11% said six days, Gallup reported.

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Those who worked four-day workweeks were more likely to say they were "thriving" (63%) and reported the lowest levels of frequent burnout (23%). Employees working five days reported slightly higher levels of burnout (26%) and were less likely to say they were thriving, at 57%.

Although rates of engagement across the week were similar for all three work schedules, those with four and six-day workweeks reported higher rates of active disengagement than those with five-day schedules: 17% compared with 12%.

Gallup researchers concluded that shorter workweeks provided more opportunities for promoting social, physical and community well-being, and could offer employees more flexibility -- a consistent desire from workers and one that usually creates higher employee engagement.

But the quality of the work experience has a bigger impact on people, researchers noted: "If the goal is to build an engaging workplace culture, reducing the workweek may not be the place to start." they wrote. "The real problem is that most employees are poorly managed."

Similarly, a recent Harvard Business Review article found that four-day workweeks were a "promising" way of improving worker well-being without affecting productivity, but only if implemented correctly.

For Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Centre on Longevity, the main problem with the five-day workweek is that it reflects a society we no longer live in.

"We're continuing to work as we needed to 100 years ago. In doing so, we're failing to realise new opportunities," she said. "There's nothing magic about that number."

Carstensen has argued that work needs to change to reflect the fact that people have longer, more complex lives. More people now seek education throughout their life, not just when they're young, she noted, and people leave and re-enter the workforce throughout their lives.

Caretaking has also changed, with workers caring for children and elderly parents at various points in their careers.

Shorter workweeks can help them manage those responsibilities, which disproportionately fall to women, Carstensen said. But they could also potentially narrow gender gaps, giving men more opportunity to parent and provide care.

Parents aren't the only ones who can reap the benefit of a shortened workweek. Childless workers who recently transitioned to a four-day workweek told The Lily they were unlikely to revert to a longer schedule.

Natalie Green, 29, says she was in perpetual burnout before her company moved to a four-day workweek this year.

Green, who lives in Los Angeles, does political advocacy at a non-profit. When she had a Monday to Friday work schedule, she never felt adequately rested, she said -- at least half the weekend was spent just catching up on "personal work": running errands, prepping meals for the week, cleaning her home.

"I felt like I was living from vacation to vacation, or from long weekends to a long weekend," Green.

She has been working a shortened workweek since this summer, and said it has "probably been one of the best job benefits I've ever gotten."

Green said she's seen a huge shift in her work-life balance, which has made her more motivated at work and more conscious about prioritising her tasks.

Some research has shown that the benefits of four-day workweeks may be mitigated if workers try to squeeze a 40-hour workweek into four days. This has not been the case for Green, who said she hasn't been working longer hours during the week. Occasionally, she might need to do some work on Fridays, but Green said she enjoys being able to do so without being interrupted by emails or meetings.

When another company attempted to recruit her, she didn't think twice about turning down the job. She doesn't want to go back to a longer workweek unless the pay is substantially higher or the work is less stressful, she said.

Kelsey Rhodes, a 29-year-old communications director living in Kansas City, Missouri, gave a "hard no" when asked whether she would consider returning to a five-day week.

Rhodes works for a national reproductive health organisation that moved to a shorter workweek after the coronavirus hit the United States: "The goal was to honour that we were all holding a lot more," she said. Her workplace has permanently moved to a "flex" model, which, in practice, means most employees work a four-day week, Rhodes said.

She still experiences high levels of anxiety because of the pandemic and the current political and social climate, she said. But, Rhodes said, the biggest difference is how workplace culture has shifted since the change.

"It really required some pretty radical trust from our organisational leadership to all of our colleagues," Rhodes said. This has inspired her and others in her organisation to be more transparent and honest about workplace issues, such as managing work loads or requiring additional help on a project.

ICIS staffer and clients have also been happy with the shortened schedule, Silkes said, and she's seen "really positive levels of engagement" among employees.

To preserve these new boundaries, Silke said it is important that she lead by example.

"I set the tone. And if the team really sees that I don't respond to emails on Friday, and that I really would not expect anyone to do work on Friday, I think that's really important," she said.

She also hopes other companies follow suit.

"I really do believe that we succeed in our work as an organisation because life comes first," Silkes said. "That's my message, and that's the message that all of our staff members have."

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