Thank G-d It’s…Thursday?
TGIF (Thank G-d It’s Friday) may soon become a phrase of the past.
For over a century, the five-day workweek has been standard across the globe for most industries. While there have been calls for a shorter week for decades, thanks to the pandemic and the shifting style of remote working, the movement is gaining momentum. Fueled by the realization that technology allows us to be plugged into the office at any hour without actually stepping foot into the office, employees are wondering why they must commit to a Monday-through-Friday, nine-to-five cubicle to complete their tasks.
A four-day workweek trial run was conducted this summer in many countries with great success. A nonprofit organization called 4 Day Workweek Global is banding business leaders and community activists together to implement a shorter workweek with studies and trials in a variety of locations and industries. Thanks to these efforts, a shorter workweek may soon become a permanent reality throughout the world.
Cutting Cubicle Time
Workers didn’t always get off for the weekend. Before the implementation of labor laws, there was no such thing as human resources, and it was standard for workers to put in 100-hour workweeks. Labor rights organizations protested with the famous battle cry, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will!” and fought for official employment laws. In 1908, a New England cotton mill became the first American factory to institute the five-day workweek to accommodate its Shabbos-observant immigrant workers. Soon after, other textile factories followed suit, as they employed many Jewish immigrant workers. Auto tycoon Henry Ford established a five-day workweek in 1914 in the hopes that consumers would spend more in leisure and purchase more cars. The federal government officially instituted the two-day weekend during the Great Depression in 1938 with the passing of the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938. The law was not fully enforced, however, and Jews were still being fired for not working on Saturdays in the years that followed. Vacation days entered the picture during World War II when employers were short staffed wanted to entice employees to return to work. Vacation days were also utilized to combat wage limits set by the National War Labor Board. Things remained quiet until 1993 with the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act, which guarantees a minimum of 12 weeks of unpaid time for medical issues. Since then, the workweek has remained stagnant.
In 1928, English economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that by 2028 technological advancement would reduce our workweek to 15 hours. A Senate subcommittee in 1965 predicted that Americans would work 14-hour weeks by the year 2000. Clearly, we have not reached these goals.
Working Ourselves Weary
The theory that more hours yield more productivity has been proven false in many studies. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that those who worked 55 hours per week performed less efficiently on some mental tasks than those who worked 40 hours per week. Harvard Business Review found that people work best in intense 90-minute bursts followed by periods of recovery. These findings suggest that with the right scheduling of bursts and rests, workers could get a similar amount of work done over a shorter period of time.
COVID-19 has shown us that the traditional work schedule can allow for more fluidity. Because so many of us shifted to remote work, we have become more flexible and accommodating of our schedules.
Seeking to understand the future of work’s trajectory, the Adecco Group surveyed nearly 15,000 workers across 25 countries and compiled their findings into the Resetting Normal: Defining the New Era of Work 2021. The survey revealed that although 63 percent of employees logged in for more than 40 hours a week, more than half felt they could accomplish their tasks in less time. Seven out of 10 employees preferred a system in which they could be paid by task completion rather than by hour.
The world’s most productive – and happiest – countries, according to yearly polls conducted by the World Happiness Report, are Finland, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. The average work schedule in these countries is just 27 hours per week. Perhaps this is something worth duplicating.
Forgetting the 40 Hour
America seems to be lagging in this movement. Only 21 companies in the U.S. are experimenting with a four-day workweek to see if the success overseas can be replicated here. California is currently trying to pass an initiative called Bill AB-2932 Workweek to reduce their state’s working hours. Hopefully, the Big Apple will soon follow. According to reports, only 35 percent of New York City’s workers have returned to the office full time since the pandemic. Governor Kathy Hochul was quoted in The New York Post as saying, “It may be four days with flexibility. It may be three and a half.” Mayor Eric Adams seemed to reverse his stance on getting New Yorkers back to the office when he told NBC New York, “(We’re) moving into a new era of working and what New York is going to look like.”
How it Works
Why would a boss agree to reduce the workweek to 32 hours with no reduction in salary or benefits? A shorter week may mean that employees will avoid burnout and return to work more focused. The objective here is on results instead of hours. 4 Day Week Global explains it on their website as a principle of the 100:80:100 model, meaning 100 percent of the pay for 80 percent of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain at least 100 percent productivity. There are also the additional financial bonuses of reducing utility costs, lowering office expenses, and for the environmentally conscious, a reduced carbon footprint.
O’Connor points out that companies who implement a compressed workweek spend less on recruiting and retraining staff. Workers also report improvements to their health and a reduction in stress levels, incurring less sick leave and burnout-related costs.
If giving off Fridays isn’t feasible, employers can offer an alternative day off. Another idea is to maintain a 40-hour workweek with 10-hour shifts instead of the traditional eight.
Driven or Drained?
Will another day off foster laziness? Not according to Rachelie Goldberger, LCSW. She cites European case studies that support the claim that fewer work hours are conducive to a healthy lifestyle. She explains that when people have time off to invest in self-care, they return to work happier, and it’s reflected in their work.
“The traditional nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday schedule is a disaster,” Rachelie says. “It promotes bad eating habits and poor self-care, puts stress on the family unit, and leaves no time for spiritual growth.” Goldberger says that a nine-to-three day would give employees, especially busy moms, time to take care of themselves and their families. “When you think about it,” she adds, “many of us are really working seven-to-seven when you factor in getting ready for work, preparing lunches, and the commute.”
Zisha Novoseller, CEO and executive director of the EPI Network, a nonprofit recruitment and career services organization, believes that a four-day workweek will compound problems, not solve them.
“Young people need to be kept busy and productive,” Novoseller says. “I would love an extra day to sit around and learn in the beis medrash all day, but that is not typical. The average person will just squander the free time, accomplishing nothing.”
Novoseller points out that the Jewish community already faces a challenge in keeping its seniors occupied. What about burnout? “That’s what your vacation and personal days are for,” he says. “Companies give around 25 days off a year to handle such matters.”
Goldberger doesn’t agree. “Perhaps for young kids, idle minds lead to mischief, but not for healthy, functional adults.” She maintains that a healthy adult will use the extra time to invest in their families and for self-care.
Is the Office Becoming Obsolete?
While the four-day work week would likely work best in office-based sectors such as finance, IT, software and professional services, O’Connor says that there are case studies in which a shorter work week was implemented successfully in manufacturing, retail, and hospitality.
“In our experience,” O’Conner says, “once companies reach the point where they can launch a trial, they succeed and end up making the policy permanent. Some fail because the C-suites (high-ranking executives) overthink it and feel they need to come up with every solution, some because they don’t have the right culture, and some because of other major changes that are happening in their business, like leadership change or financial crisis.”
It’s 5:00 on a Thursday afternoon as you shut down your computer and prepare to leave for the day. It’s going to be a hectic evening of grocery shopping, carpooling, helping with homework, and cooking for Shabbos. You head to bed after midnight knowing that in a few short hours you must dress and face another day at the office.
How nice would it be if Fridays were included as part of the weekend?
Thanks to the movement to implement a four-day workweek, that might become a reality.