According to their website, 4 Day Week Global, in partnership with Autonomy and 4 Day Week UK, is working with researchers at Cambridge University, Boston College and Oxford University to run pilot programs in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand — the largest experiment of its kind to date.

The pilot will last for six months, with employees getting paid the same as if they worked a standard five-day week, and the participating companies encompass a wide range of industries.

Beginnings

Years ago, Andrew Barnes was flipping through an Economist magazine on a flight from the U.K. when he came across a study on the productivity of office workers. Barnes is the founder of Perpetual Guardian, New Zealand's largest corporate trustee company.

The articles referenced a survey by the company Vouchercloud and claimed workers in the U.K. were only productive 2.5 hours per day, and Canadians were only productive 1.5 hours per day.

The survey was a self-reported assessment, and the results would not hold up under scientific scrutiny, but Barnes was nonetheless intrigued. He was interested in the interaction between home life and the output of employees.

“Right at the heart of this, it’s productivity,” he said in a 2019 interview.

As more employees report burnout, companies are searching for a better way to increase retention, and maintain a productive workforce. Barnes founded the nonprofit 4 Day Week to address these ideas. The organization is now conducting the largest study of its kind ever.

What is burnout?

The National Library of Medicine characterizes burnout in three dimensions: “overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

The organization states the syndrome is due to “chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.” Many risk factors contribute to burnout, and they have been grouped into six domains to evaluate an organization. The employee’s risk of burnout can be assessed by understanding “workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values” associated with the role.

The workload domain is what the four-day workweek movement aims to improve in order to reduce burnout.

Past studies

France famously legislated a reduced workweek in 1998, limiting the private sector to 35 hours. In the 2018 report How to achieve shorter working hours, British economic historian Lord Robert Skidelsky examined this and other case studies.

He concluded that “shortening hours by extracting more effort in the remaining hours is not a way of reducing the amount of work, but simply of redistributing it. The extra day’s leisure is purchased at the price of increased exhaustion.”

Beginning in 2020, Unilever New Zealand conducted a yearlong trial with its 81 staff members. Results have yet to be published.

The Perpetual Guardian ran a trial in 2018 with 240 staff members. The report shows an increased ability to maintain a work-life balance

Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland’s national government and the Reykjavík City Council ran trials including more than 2,500 workers according to their published report.

The workplaces involved offices, social service providers, hospitals, day cares and beyond, tracking 9-to-5 workers as well as “nonstandard” shift patterns.

This trial has been held up as a proof of concept for the four-day workweek, but the Iceland study’s definition of a shorter workweek was only a subtraction of four to five hours, not a full workday.

With the momentum of this study, the report claims that “roughly 86% of Iceland’s entire working population has now either moved to working shorter hours or has gained the right to shorten their working hours.”

Though impressive, the reduction amounted to 65 minutes per week for the public sector and 35 minutes per week for the private sector. Additionally, the report estimated the reduction of hours cost the Icelandic government an estimated $4.2 billion due to increased staffing needs primarily in health care.

Some are skeptical

Parkinson’s law is an idea coined by the British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson, writing “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This is one of the pillars supporting the push for a four-day workweek.

France’s shortened workweek has largely been debunked, as the 35 hours became a threshold for overtime and rest day compensation to start. The time worked has not decreased with the legislation.

According to the BBC, the Adam Smith Institute warned: “If we force people to work less they will inevitably earn less.” In the same vein, the head of research at the institute, Matthew Lesh said forcing “people to work less will mean lower wages and fewer opportunities for millions” in the context of the U.K. labor market.