Most American employees still put in eight-hour days, five days a week, even in the age of remote work. But many companies and governments are exploring a change, replacing that standard with the four-day workweek.

The idea has gained traction from Belgium to the United Arab Emirates, from California to Missouri. Bankrate reported last year that more than 80% of America’s full-time workforce supports the concept.

Could this be the answer to work-life balance and burnout? Or does it just create new problems?

Better balance

The four-day workweek could be the cure for employee burnout, or mental exhaustion due to overwork. This global epidemic has made headlines since the pandemic and the rise of remote work, under terms like “quiet quitting” and “the great resignation.”

According to McKinsey & Co., 1 in 4 employees around the world experience some level of burnout. Not only does this affect their mental health, it also impacts the bottom line, because they are six times more likely to quit in a matter of months, and may also have higher rates of sick days and absenteeism.

The four-day alternative offers employees more flexibility and free time, reducing the likelihood of stress and fatigue. The largest trial to date, which took place in the United Kingdom in 2022, showed that an extra day off can keep employees more engaged and healthy.

Of the 2,900 workers who participated, 60% said the shorter week made it easier to balance their professional obligations with familial and social responsibilities. By the end of the six-month experiment, the likelihood of an employee quitting fell by 57%. The number of sick days used dropped 65%. But it also yielded a surprising outcome: Revenues rose across the 24 participating companies that provided this data.

“But it’s not just about productivity. It’s also about well-being,” said Andrew Barnes, co-founder of the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, speaking at the MIT Sloan Management Review’s Work/23 symposium last May. The nonprofit helped conduct the U.K. study and oversees similar research around the world, including experiments in the United States. “And what we’re seeing is on broadly every single account — whether it’s workload satisfaction, stress, burnout, the time people can spend getting fit and exercising — it increased ability to have strong mental health, which is critical.”

Utah was the first U.S. state to experiment with this change for state employees, adopting a four-day, 40-hour schedule from 2008 to 2011. Mandated by former Gov. Jon Huntsman, this temporary change reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions while also saving the state close to $1 million per year.

To each their own

Sometimes an idealistic change can have unexpected outcomes and undesired consequences. There’s a reason Utah dropped the four-day workweek for government employees: It didn’t live up to the hype.

An audit by the state Legislature found that it was saving far less than the $3 million annual number the governor’s office hoped for. Meanwhile, citizens grew dissatisfied when they couldn’t access government services on Fridays. Similarly, 55% of employees in a 2022 Qualtrics survey feared that a four-day workweek would frustrate their customers.

It’s not all roses for employees, either. Everybody works differently, as do different companies in different industries.

Some are moving to four days using a compressed schedule — totaling 40 hours, with longer shifts to compensate. Others implement a shortened schedule with only 32 hours each week.

Either way, employees still have the same responsibilities. Reducing the workweek just cuts down the time they have to complete their duties.

“Burnout is a work-related syndrome. If people are forced to cram their work into four days when they prefer five — and if they need longer days to do so — it could cause burnout,” Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist for workplace management and well-being, told CNN in November.

A shortened schedule can also act as a Band-Aid that hides the real issues behind worker dissatisfaction. For example, in 2022, Gallup found that the quality of the workplace and work experience are up to three times more impactful on employee well-being than the amount of time worked. Addressing the root causes of why employees are unhappy with their company in the first place could be a more effective and inclusive solution than changing up the workweek.

There’s just no one-size-fits-all solution. The four-day workweek leaves out entire industries, like manufacturing and customer service and emergency response, because they don’t have the same flexibility.

“It becomes challenging in fields where services have to be provided in the here and now, at fixed times, for customers, or people who are being cared for,” Bernd Fitzenberger, director of the Institute for Employment Research in Germany, told DW News.

This story appears in the May 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.