Work still needs to get done in the same amount of total time
Fatigue and stress accumulate over a longer-than-normal working day
Many employers and employees love the thought of a four-day workweek. Supposedly, a four-day work schedule allows workers extra time to pursue leisure activities and family togetherness. Spurred on by visions of spending more time at the beach, many people are now encouraging businesses to adopt this kind of work plan.
Proponents of such “compressed” work schedules – those in which employees work longer hours for fewer days of the week — point to gains in productivity that result from decreased overhead costs, such as not having to keep the lights on when nobody is working. Additional cost savings can be obtained from reducing total weekly commuting time.
A variety of business have tested the four-day concept, including Amazon, Google, Deloitte and a host of smaller firms. Amazon announced in late August that it is experimenting with an even shorter workweek of 30 hours for select employees, who would earn 75 percent of their full-time salary, should they choose to opt in.
Many of the pilot programs have shown promising results. Statistics from the Society for Human Resource Management indicate that 31 percent of employees were in a compressed workweek schedule as of 2015. That’s the case, however, for only 5 percent of large companies.
This is an issue in which I have considerable experience. I have been studying the health effects of long working hours for nearly 30 years. All the studies point to the potential dangers that can occur as the result of the additional risks created when work demands exceed a particular threshold. Most of the studies I have performed suggest that the dangers are most pronounced when people regularly work more than 12 hours per day or 60 hours per week.
It sounded like a good idea
The idea of a four-day workweek is not new. Labor experts have been studying and advocating these approaches since the 1970s. For example, in 2008, researchers from Brigham Young University conducted a series of surveys among employees and community members to assess their perspectives about a four-day workweek. The researchers found that about four-fifths of the employees reported a positive experience working that type of schedule.
Based on these positive results, Utah’s governor enacted a mandatory four-day workweek for all state employees. The state’s goal was to curb energy costs, improve air quality, ensure that needed services would still be available (for instance, garbage collection) and help to recruit and retain state employees. In 2011, however, Utah reversed course, saying that savings never materialized.
Other research has also supported the development and adoption of compressed work schedules. A 1989 study found that compressed schedules (PDF) were related to high levels of job satisfaction and employees’ satisfaction with their work schedules; supervisors also reported they were pleased with the four-day workweek schedules.
Are there hidden dangers?
Despite the widespread enthusiasm for a four-day week, I am not convinced that kind of schedule is beneficial for employees or for businesses. The primary problem with the idea is that whatever work needs to be done, needs to get done in the same amount of total time. Despite wishes to the contrary, there are still only 24 hours in a day.
The math is simple: working five eight-hour shifts is equivalent to working four 10-hour shifts. That’s true. But the implications of these schedules are different. The danger is in disregarding the health effects that can occur as a result of fatigue and stress that accumulate over a longer-than-normal working day.
I performed a study showing that the risk of suffering an industrial accident is raised by 37 percent for employees working more than 12 hours in a day. The risk is 61 percent higher for people in “overtime” shifts. Working more than 60 hours in a week is related to an additional injury risk of 23 percent. As the hours worked in those schedules increase, the risks grow accordingly.
More recently, Dr. Xiaoxi Yao, a colleague of mine who is now at the Mayo Clinic, and I recently performed another study using 32 years of work-hour information to analyze the relationship between long working hours over many years and the risk of being diagnosed with a chronic disease later in life. We found that the dangers were quite substantial, especially for women.