How the 4-day workweek could fix burnout and low productivity in one fell swoop

Victoria Wells: Burnout rates plummet, productivity rises at companies that move to shorter workweeks, research shows

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Executives struggling to fix a burnout epidemic ruining workers’ health and costing their companies big bucks in lost productivity may want to consider implementing something their employees have been clamouring for: the four-day workweek.

Burnout rates plummet at companies that move to a working schedule of 32 hours or less each week, according to a new report from the non-profit think tank Infinite Potential in collaboration with Toronto-based Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence. Only nine per cent of employees report feeling burned out at organizations that have implemented a reduced schedule at the same pay, compared to a 41 per cent burnout rate at workplaces with a standard 40-hour workweek.

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Companies also reap the benefits of reduced work hours. Productivity rises 15 per cent under the reduced schedule and workers report being 23 per cent more engaged. At the same time, those organizations are better able to keep employees from quitting, with retention increasing by 22 per cent.

Together, those benefits add up to significant cost savings for both companies and economies. Burnout, a syndrome the World Health Organization defines as characterized by exhaustion, cynicism over work and reduced productivity from chronic workplace stress, costs the United States between US$125 billion and US$190 billion a year in health-care expenses, according to the Harvard Business Review, and that doesn’t account for costs arising from lost productivity and absenteeism. In Canada, workers in 2012 who called in sick because of mental-health struggles cost businesses around $16.6 billion in lost productivity, the Conference Board of Canada estimates.

With that kind of price tag, it’s no wonder executives are paying more attention to improving employee mental health, with some investing in well-being programs, such as mindfulness training, meditation apps and even on-site yoga. The only problem with those initiatives is that they don’t work since staffers don’t experience any improvements to their mental health, according to research from Oxford University.

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Meanwhile, shorter workweeks decrease burnout rates by 32 per cent, the Infinite Potential report said. Joe O’Connor, chief executive of the Work Time Reduction Center, which conducts research into shortened workweeks and helps companies implement them, said reducing working hours stands out as one measure that really does boost productivity while combating burnout. “Is there a single thing that any corporate leader could do that could boost productivity to the same extent as unlocking that third of the workforce to be able to show up as their best selves, to be able to contribute in a very focused, engaged, productive way?” he said. Apparently not.

Those big productivity gains don’t just come down to the effects of fewer office hours, though that’s key to helping employees rest and recharge. To implement the schedule and make it work, companies must address some big issues standing in the way of efficiency. “Organizations that undertake these work models tend to undergo a process of work redesign,” O’Connor said.

For example, leaders must identify time and cost savings, such as cutting down on meetings, removing workplace distractions and alleviating heavy workloads, so that people can work less and still get everything done. The result is a win-win for both employers and workers. “What you end up with is a scenario where people’s quality of life has improved in terms of having time back outside of work,” O’Connor said. “But their quality of work has also improved and people feel like when they’re at work, they can really focus on the things that really matter and really drive value.”

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Of course, the reality is that many companies are not exactly rushing to reduce the amount of time their employees spend working, whether that’s in the form of the four-day workweek or some other schedule that reduces hours. Polls show high interest among managers, as well as among 93 per cent of workers, in trying a reduced workweek, but adoption remains slow. Still, O’Connor said the uptake will only increase. “The trajectory is only pointed in one direction,” he said. “The question is more around the pace of change and depth of change.”

Artificial intelligence might move things along more quickly since it offers executives an opportunity to pass on time savings and productivity gains to employees in the form of shortened workweeks, which will improve their quality of life and likely drive even more productivity gains.

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In the meantime, recognizing that employee well-being and company productivity work together might be the push executives need to try out a reduced schedule sooner rather than later. “Shorter workweeks are not about a free ride,” O’Connor said. “They’re about providing people with the space and the time to rest, recharge, rejuvenate and make sure that when they’re at work, they are enabled and equipped to bring their best selves and to really be able to deliver for the time that they’re there.”

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A version of this story was first published in the FP Work newsletter, a curated look at the changing world of work. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

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