Why a 4-day workweek hasn’t been adopted yet, despite study success

The shortened workweek is gaining buzz in the U.S. but still faces hurdles before wide adoption

(Video: Simoul Alva For The Washington Post)

Through scorching heat, pouring rain and bone-chilling cold, Shelby Meadows spends more than eight hours a day, five days a week, tending to a country club golf course in Winston-Salem, N.C. That means showing up at 6 a.m. and working up to 10 and a half hours mowing the grass and pulling weeds. Other times, it means lugging 20 to 35 pounds of equipment or supplies around. She racks up about five miles a day between all her duties and often works somewhere between 42 and 45 hours a week when all is done.

So the thought of a shortened, four-day workweek is quite appealing to her.

“I feel like it would be easier to be happy … because my life wouldn’t be dominated by work,” said the 21-year-old landscaper. “I would have more time to rest and recover since I have a more strenuous job.”

Meadows is far from alone. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted this spring shows that 75 percent of workers would prefer working four 10-hour days versus five eight-hour days, including majorities across generations, income levels and partisan groups. But a similarly large 73 percent say they would rather work five days a week at full-time pay than four days for less pay, a sign most workers are unwilling to sacrifice income for a shorter workweek.

Most workers would prefer a four-day workweek with longer hours, but not a pay cut

The vast majority of companies and organizations in the United States still operate on a five-day workweek, but some advocacy groups are pushing through pilots for a 32-hour, four-day workweek without decreasing pay. Hurdles including concerns about staffing, lower productivity, increased costs and complex changes to operations are keeping the shortened workweek from being widely adopted.

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“It’s been almost 100 years we’ve operated with the current workweek,” said Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College researching the four-day workweek. “I don’t think we can expect it [to change] overnight.”

If the shortened four-day workweek is widely adopted in the U.S., it would probably takefive to 10 years for it to happen, estimate Charlotte Lockhart and Andrew Barnes, founders of the research and advocacy organization 4 Day Week Global, which implemented trials around the world. But the two say the conversation has already gone mainstream in five years and more companies adopting the policy could increase pressure on others.

Why hasn’t the U.S. adopted a four-day workweek?

The five-day workweek has been part of U.S. law for more than 80 years. Henry Ford first standardized five days, down from six, at Ford Motor in 1926 in response to the labor movement. In 1940, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act mandated overtime pay for any time worked beyond 40 hours per week. But since then, not much about the workweek has changed, experts say. They say change will take a combination of politics, labor unions and corporate leadership.

Here’s a history of the invention of the 40-hour workweek, the burnout crisis and the alternatives that employers are using today to attract their workforce. (Video: Jackie Lay/The Washington Post)

Earlier this year, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) reintroduced the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act, a bill to reduce the workweek by eight hours. State legislators have also put forward legislation. In California, a bill proposed a flexible schedule that would’ve allow employees to request workdays of up to 10 hours to reduce the length of the workweek. It failed in late April in part because of concerns about extended workdays without overtime. Another California bill proposed supporting a pilot program for a 32-hour week. A similar bill in Maryland was recently withdrawn, partially because of cost, but is expected to revive next year after more research. And legislators in Massachusetts recently proposed a bill that would support a two-year pilot of a four-day workweek.

For businesses, the shift involves cultural and structural changes. Companies may have to change the way they operate, with a staggered workforce in some casesand manage workers, said Chris Kayes, chair of the Department of Management at The George Washington University School of Business. For policymakers, it’s a question of funding pilots and creating economic incentives to encourage adoption.

“The policy may be perceived as a good environment for employees, but maybe not so much to attract employers if they’re not open to it,” he said.

Some labor groups point out that not all four-day workweek policies favor workers. The California Labor Federation, an organization that comprises more than 1,200 unions across industries, opposes any policy that gets rid of the eight-hour workday, despite the length of the workweek.

“We just think after eight hours, people deserve overtime,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, chief officer of the federation. “In dangerous, hard jobs, after eight hours, it bears on your body. We’re not in support of contributing to that.”

U.K. and U.S. companies pilot a four-day workweek

In the world’s largest trial of the shortened workweek, 61 companies in the United Kingdom participated. Participants received workshops, coaching and peer support for two months before launching the shortened week. Companies could use different approaches, as long as pay stayed the same and work time was reduced. The result? Workers reported a rise in well-being and work-life balance, the organizations running the pilot documented. Companies said revenue stayed “broadly the same” compared with previous years, and fewer employees quit. And a majority of companies continued the four-day workweek trial past the pilot, with 3 in 10 making it permanent.

“Covid allowed people to see changes could happen to their working life almost overnight,” said Jack Kellam, researcher at Autonomy, which helped evaluate performance and employee experience in the pilot. “It allowed them to see that they could have agency to change the world of work.”

Oakland-based online resale platform thredUP launched an independent pilot of the four-day workweek at the beginning of 2021 before finalizing it a year later.The idea: Double down on output, versus work time, and give people the option for a third day of rest. But the process didn’t come without challenges.

“It required us to really rethink how people spend their time,” said Natalie Breece, thredUP chief people and diversity officer. “Frankly, it’s reminding employees that meetings cost money. They’re expensive.”

Why do workers want a four-day workweek?

The Washington Post-Ipsos poll of 1,148 full- and part-time workers found that twice as many workers would generally prefer to work four days a week rather than five: 52 percent vs. 25 percent.

For Stephanie Yang, senior counsel of employment and litigation at thredUP, the policy was life-changing. As a former partner at a national law firm, the 37-year-old had very little opportunity to participate in behavior therapy with her 5-year-old autistic daughter. Now, she’s able to be fully present.

“She’s more responsive with me because I’m spending more time and employing more therapeutic techniques with her,” she said about her daughter. “It makes me feel like a better mom.”

A slew of workers hope they’ll someday get a shortened week. While many would support working 32 hours at the same pay, some say they’d also favor four 10-hour days a week because many of them already work long hours.

Samuel Mora, a 45-year-old computer numerical control machinist who works more than 60 hours weekly in Whittier, Calif., said he would love a shortened week.

“I can’t imagine it,” he said. He said he’d like to “to spend more time with my wife, maybe travel to other states.”

Jenifer Hoake, an EKG technician at a hospital in Harrisburg, Pa., said she works either eight- or 12-hour shifts. So a 10-hour workday wouldn’t be much different, and she’d welcome the chance to have more regular time off for day trips, relaxing or sewing. Plus, it would cut down the cost of commuting, she said.

“It does sound ideal,” said the 34-year-old. “We need to have time in life for more than just work.”

Scott Brisendine, a 54-year-old attorney in Little Rock, says sometimes his workdays span up to 16 hours. He says he’d need 10-hour days to pull off a four-day workweek, but he’d welcome the extra decompression time and a better work-life balance.

“I get to the end of the weekend, and I think I’m starting to relax,” he said about his current weekend. “But then … I have to ramp up again before I’m even there.”

Brisendine says that though he likes the idea, he thinks the four-day workweek is unlikely to happen any time soon — especially in his home state of Arkansas.

As for Meadows, the landscaper in North Carolina, she doesn’t expect the policy to hit home quickly but hopes the conversationwill at least shed more light on the needs of workers like her.

“Blue-collar workers are the backbone to how a lot of people live their lives,” she said. “We need a break.”

Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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