Is a Four-Day Workweek the Future?
Issue 4, Volume 113
By Khush Wadhwa
Time is everything. In today’s world, the way we manage our time significantly affects our health and quality of life. However, people often complain that they do not have enough time to handle their endless list of responsibilities. In light of this, they began to question the societal norms that dictate our work lives. Why should we work from nine to five? Should desk jobs be supplemented by work-from-home positions? And perhaps most importantly, does a five-day workweek truly reflect our civil needs?
Our modern workweek, which consists of 40 hours of work split upon the five weekdays, was not standardized until the early 20th century. Prior to that, most Christian-dominated societies had a six-day workweek, only affording Sundays off for holy holiday. This was problematic for Jewish workers, whose holy day Shabbat lasted from Friday evening to Saturday evening. This meant that Jewish immigrants in the American workforce often had to choose between their religious values and their responsibilities at work. However, change was finally embraced in 1908 when a New England cloth factory established a two-day weekend, greatly supporting the needs of their workforce.
Religious or not, people and employers began to take a liking to the five-day workweek. Most famously, Henry Ford established a five-day workweek for his employees as well as a 40-hour work limit per week, down from the national limit of 100 hours per week. After the Great Depression, the United States Department of Labor made Ford’s doctrine law. Another driving factor behind this decision was consumerism. As lessons on borrowing were being learned by the American people, who were still in shambles from the Great Depression, the government saw that an extra day off would lead to more stimulation of local businesses and the overall economy. For the workforce, the 40-hour, five-day workweek was a massive victory.
However, as the century progressed, it became clear that work responsibilities and stress levels were significantly rising. The American Psychological Association (APA) declared in 2010 that chronic stress has evolved into a silent killer and the leading factor behind a public health crisis. The APA’s study found that the average American believes they are about 50 percent more stressed than what is considered healthy. Those experiencing higher stress levels reported that they felt irritated, fatigued, and had a lack of motivation. The 2020-2021 report concludes that over 50 percent of stressed individuals of all generations cite health, work, the economy, personal finances, and family responsibilities as their biggest stressors. For Gen Z and millenials, the difference is even starker, with all of the above factors except the economy causing stress for over 68 percent of individuals. At a minimum, an extra day off in the week should allow for less work and family responsibility-related stress.
As a result, workers and corporations around the world have been trialing four-day workweeks in various controlled studies. The most prominent, taking place in Britain, is over halfway complete and recently published a survey gauging the opinions of 41 out of 73 participating corporations. 35 of the 41 were prepared to make the change permanent, and 39 of 41 companies reported the same or increased productivity. The trial, featuring 3,300 employees of various industries in various regions of Britain, provided an extra paid day off every week. Much of the progress shown has been extremely positive, but there are some outliers. In a British 4.5-day trial of this program, a survey indicated that between 13 percent and 16 percent of employees reported increases of flexibility, happiness, and productivity. However, a staggering 27 percent of employees reported increases in stress. These findings are contradictory to other results, but do represent an inexplicable outlier existing amongst some workers. Overall, this movement is still beginning, but most of the research strongly supports the implementation of the four-day workweek for students.
But in schools, the implementation of the four-day week has seen various conflicting results. Western states, which typically has the lowest required number of days to be fulfilled by schools, hold the bulk of four-day schools. Some schools try to balance this with longer days, but the longer-day method seems counter-intuitive. Studies have shown that four-day schools had an average of one more hour of school per week than did their five-day counterparts, but 60 less hours of instruction over the course of the year. How does that happen? This model, though more common, does not match the radical change being tested by the four-day work model, though some schools are attempting to eliminate an entire day of school or at least set it aside for clubs and other non-academic activities in order to fulfill the attendance requirements.
Stuyvesant students predict that a four-day workweek would help them. Sophomore Ifra Mahmud cited a severe lack of sleep to be her primary concern with the current structure of the workweek. “I’d use it as a day to just process everything from the days before and probably come to school feeling more refreshed,” she said.
Toward the end of the week, students feel as though they are forced to merely “survive” each school day, inhibiting their ability to actively learn class material. Sophomore James Xu noted, “With our current school week, I find that near the end of the school week, the overall energy and productivity goes down dramatically. On Friday, it is not uncommon to see students slacking off in class or even sleeping.” All interviewed students indicated that they would be able to get their work done more efficiently and that the four-day workweek would either increase sleep or decrease stress, two factors that work hand in hand.
The last remaining debate to be had revolves around which day of the week would be our third day off. There seem to be two distinct camps: one for either Monday or Friday and another for Wednesday. The students we interviewed overwhelmingly agreed that Wednesday would be the best day to have off. Senior Andrey Sokolov said, “I think that a day off in the middle of [the] week would work best, as it would allow us to refresh our brains without making the break feel too long. Personally, breaks that are longer than two days make me forget a lot of the school material, which by consequence affects my grades.”
Some believe that an extended three-day weekend would be harmful to one’s outlook on the rest of the week. When asked about her preferred day off, Sophomore Suyeon Ryu noted, “Psychologically, as people get a break, they want to continue the break. They don't want to work after or before a break, and more rest would amplify the ‘Monday effect.’” Her opinions best represent the other interviewees, who all agreed that Wednesday would allow them to maximize productivity on their day off.
The reality is that the four-day workweek is nowhere near ready. Though some moderately sized corporations in the UK and United States have pledged to make the switch, the majority of them are tech companies with highly flexible scheduling. Most brick-and-mortar and large companies will take time to adapt to such a system, and even then, only once it becomes law will government offices and schools see the effect. However, when that time comes, we will be searching for methods to maximize productivity. However, if the early signs are anything indicative of progress, we will hope to see a more balanced and productive workweek approaching the world in the near future.