Politicians, environmentalists, and activists hail the idea of working less hours for the same pay as a means of creating healthier, happier workers who get more done. It may also be more environmentally friendly, as workers avoid driving into the office.
Implementing a four-day week is not simple, and there are some misconceptions around the concept. But more companies are trialing the concept amid wider conversations about hybrid and flexible working.
We put together a list of influential books on how the world might get to a four-day week:
“The 4 Day Week” by Andrew Barnes with Stephanie Jones
Andrew Barnes is the CEO of Perpetual Guardian, a firm that introduced a four-day workweek to its New Zealand office in 2018. Workers were each given one day off a week between Monday and Friday, rather than the same day, and the company saw hikes in happiness and productivity.
Barnes, who is also the co-founder of the 4 Day Week Global campaign, says that rather than simply being about giving workers the freedom to take a day off, success depends on communication.
“B*llshit Jobs” by David Graeber
The reason we don’t have a 15-hour workweek, as the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted, is because most white-collar work is still centered around dull, ultimately meaningless jobs that provide people with little value, according to Graeber.
Some describe it as a bit of a rant, but it provides an overview of the general question of why do we work, and more importantly what for?
Published in March 2020, just days before the US’s first COVID-19 death, Pang tackles the four-day week concept from a practical, business perspective by studying how different organizations have implemented it, and the benefits they unlocked.
Pang has said in the past, if you’re a business leader there are three ways of reducing working hours without cutting productivity: more concise meetings, periods of ‘focus time’ that enable workers to tackle their hardest tasks uninterrupted, and more careful use of technology.
“The Secret of the 4 Day Week” by Pernille Garde Abildgaard
Abildgaard is a workplace consultant and has studied how the four-day week has been implemented in a variety of work contexts, from the Danish IT company IIH Nordic, which was struggling to recruit staff, to care workers, and teachers.
Abildgaard also provides tips and tricks for how a person can reduce their own daily workload and improve their productivity.
“The Case for a Four Day Week” by Anna Coote, Aidan Harper, and Alfie Stirling
All three are current and past members of the New Economics Foundation, a British think tank focused on social mobility and environmental economics.
They discuss how a shorter working week among many things will benefit the lowest paid in society, help to fairly rebalance the distribution of caring responsibilities between men and women and even create more jobs.
As the US opens up, more and more employees are telling their bosses they want flexible and hybrid working arrangements.
“Three-quarters of our individuals around the world said flexibility is what they want,” Devika Bulchandani, North America CEO of Ogilvy, said.
Bulchandani said that Ogilvy, like many other firms, is also looking at a 3/2 working model and considering other positive changes it can introduce.
“We also shrunk our real-estate footprint because that allows us to reinvest into different areas of the business and reinvest into our people and what they need going forward,” she said.
She added that they’re instituting three compulsory days off per quarter for each employee to manage burnout.
“Just because we did it doesn’t mean we’re going to do it again,” she said. “Things like, do people need to travel to a meeting? Let’s ask ourselves why.”
Bulchandani said that she’s telling her staff to question whether there’s a perspective missing from the room in terms of gender, race, or disability, as well as capability.
“I have a different skillset, would this team do better? And then my question is, ‘Am I just thinking about New York, or should I be thinking about somebody from our Minneapolis office?'” she said.
In a similar vein, Heimann said that the “democratic” and inclusive nature of the virtual world is something her firm is trying to maintain as employees return to work.
Office space, she said, “will be a creative nexus, it will be a collaboration nexus, it will be a team nexus.” As for remote offices, Heimann said that they’re looking at a broad range of technologies that do more than simply combat “Zoom fatigue.”
“I think that the new age is going to be a little more immersive, more gaming-like, and those are the ones we’re testing,” she said. Weber Shandwick also hired a chief workforce innovation officer and a chief impact officer to push leadership toward “transformation that puts inclusion at the heart.”
“We talked to client after client about the need to solve at the intersections and therefore put together agile, cross-functional teams to bring that ability to clients again,” she said.
I take the University of California online anti-sexual harassment training course regularly, and when I do, I believe I’m helping the world become a better place. Like most working women, I’ve suffered harassment at work, and despite evidence from empirical studies and from my own experience that the training doesn’t work and that I take it to limit the liability of my employer in a sexual harassment lawsuit, I will myself to believe in it.
Staff and faculty who have been harassed simply suck it up and move on, changing positions if possible or just avoiding the offender. Occasionally, a scandal breaks through and a harassment case leads to the dismissal of a famous professor or administrator; yet, the victims who brought the suit forward usually live forever with the reputation of being a “troublemaker.”
Despite countless initiatives, corporate and university gender equity programs failed to mitigate damage done to the lives of working women wrought by COVID lockdowns as work moved home and online, and schools and daycares closed. Women’s participation in the workforce has dropped to 1988 levels, with women bearing the brunt of COVID unemployment figures at every level of income and education: four decades of progress for women at work has been undone in one year.
The University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana and Rand Corporation studies have shown that employee participation in employee wellness programs were low and that those who used them tended to be healthier and better paid – essentially resulting in a covert shift of organizational resources away from the lowest paid and unhealthiest employees to the best paid and healthiest ones. The Rand Corporation findings focused on maximizing employer return on investment, and recommended that employers focus their wellness programs on employees with the most severe health issues.
And yet, if your boss is paying attention to your muscle mass, poor sleep, lack of exercise or bad eating habits, I can guarantee that they are not interested in your wellbeing. They are, instead, very worried about having to pay higher health insurance premiums if their workforce is plagued with chronic ill health. Wellness programs neither save employers money nor increase employee wellbeing, but they continue to proliferate. Human Resources wellness centers cannot stop spending money on health tracking, meditation, and exercise apps that are “free to download” onto employee smartphones.
Through my workplace, I can download MyStrength, an app that helps me cope with stress in real time, or I can try the Headspace app, which will also help me “weather the storm” through meditation and exercise. If these two apps do not get me to optimal wellness, there is an app that reminds me to step away occasionally from my desk to do downward-facing dog.
As retired Harvard Business School Professor, Shoshana Zuboff shows in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, once data gathering reaches a certain scale, it becomes enormously valuable and exploitable. What is to prevent employers from monetizing the data gathered by all those “free” wellness apps? Very little, according to Zuboff, because privacy regulations lag behind tech innovations.
Poor economic conditions drive wellness
Wellness initiatives are designed to disguise the role that a solid paycheck plays in people’s overall wellbeing – in fact, low pay is one of the greatest stressors for workers of all races and sexes. Low socioeconomic status and poor working conditions lead to higher levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Other indicators of stress, like diabetes and obesity, increase across populations with lower job status and lower pay.
People who make good money and have a high degree of control over their work lives also enjoy dramatically greater degrees of mental and physical wellbeing. A recent study on Universal Basic Income (UBI) from Stockton, California, a small, economically struggling city in California’s Central Valley, confirmed the connection between money and wellbeing. For two years, the program gave $500 a month to 125 randomly selected residents living at or below the city’s median income.
Initial results of the study show that the monthly cash infusion led to dramatic decreases in depression and anxiety in recipients of the no-strings-attached cash. Improved mental wellbeing allowed recipients to pay debts, find work, and deepen relationships with friends and family. The findings from Stockton disprove the fantasy that working class and poor Americans would be profligate with cash infusions. UBI is a controversial issue, but the Stockton study offers important lessons about the power of money in relationship to mental health and overall well-being.
No boundaries at work
If the pre-woke workplace was filled with sexism, racism, and overtly punitive evaluation protocols that encouraged the promotion of networked, white, male employees, the contemporary workplace has evolved into experimental sites of surveillance and data-gathering, all in the name of “caring.”
Covertly coercive, wellness initiatives serve as excuses for upper management to push aside questions of pay and pay equity for superficial engagement with our most private experiences. But, the last place I want to talk about my experiences of trauma is at work; I do not want my workplace to be involved with my daily practice of healing my wounds.
Just as school was my refuge from the unpredictability of home life when I was a child, I looked to work as a place where I could put aside, if only temporarily, my hair-trigger adrenaline-fueled over-reactions to setbacks and obstacles in order to better engage in the meaningful, joyful exercise of collectively exercised reason and argument. As a professor, I have come to believe that the best thing I could do for my students, traumatized and not, is to provide a space where the use of one’s intellect and powers of reason are respected, rewarded, and recognized.
In the view of my employer though, my approach to trauma is both too old-fashioned and too commonsensical. In the past month, I have been asked to participate in training courses in trauma-sensitive pedagogy, whatever that could mean. The way in which COVID has impacted working mothers and the lowest paid employees at the university has hardened my cynicism about pseudo-progressive managerial initiatives to care for employee wellbeing and promote workplace equity.
It is not social media addiction or millennials who are to blame for the deterioration of personal boundaries and the demise of critical thinking in our age: it is the pseudo-therapeutic initiatives of our over-managed world that have made it dangerous for us to insist on maintaining boundaries anywhere, but especially at work. Managerial initiatives infantilize workers while undermining our autonomy as private, suffering subjects.
For those on the bottom of the pay scale in any organization, a bigger paycheck would improve their mental health far more than any wellness or trauma initiative imposed upon us by HR. For those at the top of the payscale who are rewarded for finding ways to pay their employees less, this is a hard, if not impossible lesson to learn.
Catherine Liu is professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California Irvine. She is the author of the book Virtue Hoarders: the Case Against the Professional Managerial Class (University of Minnesota Press, 2021). She lives in Southern California and writes for Jacobin and has appeared on Chapo Trap House and Bungacast talking about her book and the class formation of credentialed elites in the 2021 global economy.