Workers used to attend offices and factories six or seven days a week even during the 19th century. However, a large majority of Western countries had at least the Sundays off by the end of that century. The present-day concept of 'weekends' or weekly holidays first materialised in the industrial north of Great Britain. The first five-day workweek in the United States was introduced by a New England cotton mill in 1908, so that the Jewish workers did not have to work on their Sabbath. Henry Ford was the first US industrialist to shut down motor vehicle factories on Saturdays and Sundays in 1926. Then the Amalgamated Clothing Workers' Union of America successfully demanded a five-day workweek in 1929. The rest of the USA slowly adopted this, but it was not before 1940 that the Fair Labour Standards Act mandated a maximum 40-hour workweek with provision for two-day weekends, which was implemented nationwide in the USA. It took a bit longer in some other Western countries, with Germany doing away with Saturday shifts only in the 1960s, as unions waged a campaign arguing the kids deserved more time with their fathers.
Similar to workweek, working hours in developed countries has gradually diminished over the past three decades, with France leading the way by adopting a 35-hour week in 2000. The latest trend has been to experiment with four-day weeks, with initial results in places like Iceland indicating overwhelming success. The trials in Iceland involved over 2,500 workers - about 1 per cent of the country's workforce, when workers were paid the same amount for shorter hours between 2015 and 2019. Many of them opted for 35 or 36 hours per week instead of 40 hours, and reported feeling less stressed with improvements in health and work-life balance as well as more time for family, hobbies and household chores. Most importantly, productivity either remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces. By June this year, 86 per cent of Iceland's working population either shifted to shorter working hours (35 to 36 hours per week), or were empowered to do so in the future.
A four-day workweek is not a compressed work schedule, but reduced working hours with employees engaged for 28 hours over four days and then getting three-day weekends. Analyses by a US university showed overworked employees were actually less productive than those working for a normal workweek. The New Zealand-based 'Perpetual Guardian' conducted a study on 4-day week and found the employees not only maintaining same productivity, but also showing improvements in job satisfaction, teamwork, work/life balance cum company loyalty alongside reduction in stress by 38 per cent to 45 per cent. It came as no surprise, as some of the most productive countries like Norway, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands have around 27 hours' workweek, almost the same proposed for 4-day week. In contrast, Japan is ranked 20th out of 35 countries with regard to productivity due to overworked employees. Studies also indicate that 4-day workweek would promote equality in workplace by allowing employees to spend more time with family. The employees would be better engaged, as they are less likely to become stressed or take sick leave by getting sufficient time for rest and recovery.
However, there may also be some disadvantages to the idea, as some earlier studies suggest. One Swedish study involving nurses demonstrated that it might not be cost-effective, and its implementation could be difficult as it required appropriate support, technology, and workplace culture. An American study showed great environmental outcomes and employee cum employer benefits, but poor customer satisfaction. There were complaints that customers were unable to access services with offices closed on Fridays. However, this could be resolved by using technology like chat-bots and AI-powered websites that would provide customers with alternative avenues of support.
Elsewhere in the world, the Berlin-based tech company Awin successfully rolled out a 4-day workweek for their employees in January this year with no cuts in salaries or benefits with the belief that happy, engaged, and well-balanced employees performed much better at work by finding ways to work smart and produce more. The consumer-goods giant Unilever also started a similar yearlong trial for their New Zealand staffs last December, and the Spanish government is finalising a proposal to subsidise companies that offer 4-day workweeks. Even in workaholic Japan where local language uses the word 'Karoshi' - meaning death from overwork, the MPs are discussing a proposal to grant employees one day-off each week for preserving their wellbeing. The Jobs website 'ZipRecruiter' claims the share of postings mentioning 4-day week has tripled in the past three years. All these indicate that the 4-day workweek concept is picking up momentum, as shedding hours appear to be fruitful to many firms.
Microsoft Japan also experimented with a shorter workweek program in 2019 that gave its 2,300 employees the opportunity to choose a variety of flexible work-styles. The results were highly positive indicating that workers were both happier and 40 per cent more productive. Supporters of the 4-day week argue that just because one is at his desk for eight hours each day does not mean he is very productive. Even the best employees probably carry out two or three hours of actual work. The five-hour day is about managing human energy more efficiently by working in bursts over a shorter period; and lesser time generates periods of heightened productivity.
In fact, offering remote work, abbreviated workdays and shortened workweeks could change entire societies, as people would become more relaxed, have a greater say and control over their lives, and would not feel imprisoned in high-rise buildings surrounded by dirty, congested cities. Workers would be better off by getting into the flow, do the best they can, then call it a day to return fresh the next morning. A 4-day workweek is certainly a viable option, as technology would make it possible for businesses to continue as usual while people have meaningful careers with better 'work and life' balance.
(Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. Email: [email protected])