Trying to find that perfect work-life balance is notoriously difficult and sometimes, it feels as though we’re working so many hours that we don’t get to enjoy the money we’ve earned. We miss out on family occasions or are simply too tired to enjoy them, and with the explosion of mobile technology, it seems that work can creep into every corner of our lives. It’s becoming increasingly unavoidable, but could there be a better way? Perhaps there is. Many are claiming that the three- or four-day workweek is the perfect solution to our work-life balance issues, and many scientists and business executives suggest it’s both beneficial for our health and great for business.

When around 80% of people believe that it’s acceptable to telephone an employee outside of work hours, and when it seems that modern technological advances have led to an increase rather than a decrease in hours, things are getting out of hand. Many suggest then, condensing the workweek so that the same number of hours are worked but over fewer days – four days of ten working hours rather than five days of eight, for example. This idea is not new either. John Maynard Keynes famously (and perhaps incorrectly) predicted the progression of technology would lead to more leisure and less work time, suggesting that by the year 2030, we’d all be working a 15-hour week[1]. Herman Kahn believed something similar in the 1960s, claiming that all Americans would soon be enjoying a massive 13-weeks’ annual vacation and a four-day workweek[2]. Nowadays, the campaign for reducing the weekly work days, whether to three or four days, is gaining in popularity from all walks of life, from employers and employees, to health practitioners, scientists, and business moguls. So why aren’t we doing it yet?

The Benefits of Working

There are many health benefits to working and some claim that spreading your working time over five days instead of compressing it into three or four will ultimately be better for you. Research shows that the unemployed have higher rates of physical and mental health problems, they take more medications than employed people, and they have a shorter life-expectancy[3]. That doesn’t necessarily demonstrate a cause and effect relationship of course. In fact, the causal relationship could just as easily work the other way – those who are sick are less likely to work simply because they are sick, rather than the unemployed becoming sick because they are lacking work. However, there are studies that provide strong data in favor of regular work. The Institute of Economic Affairs and the Age Endeavour Fellowship in the UK, for example, discovered that early retirement led to a 40% increase in depression and an increase of 60% in the likelihood of developing a physical condition[4].

There is similar evidence to suggest that condensing working hours into a smaller number of days can be as equally damaging as not working at all. Increasing your workday to 12 hours instead of eight increases the risk of industrial accidents by 37% as a direct result of stress, tiredness, and fatigue, meaning that your compressed workweek is more likely to leave you hurt in some way[5]. It’s not necessarily good for business either, as the governor of Utah discovered when, in 2011, the enforced four-day workweek for all state employees was reversed. The move, initialized by Gov. Jon Huntsman, compressed the working week into four ten-hour days in a move intended to save on energy costs but ultimately, financial savings failed to appear, meaning that the initiative failed overall[6]. So why does a reduced working week have so much support?

Working Is Bad for Your Health

There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that working full-time is not the shining star it seems to be. A recent study by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research discovered that working more than three days a week after the age of 40 can drastically damage your health – and in particular, your brain. The study, in which 3,000 men and 3,500 women participated, showed a degradation in cognitive ability in those who worked full time, with the degradation becoming dramatic for those who worked more than 60 hours per week. Lead author of the research, Professor Colin McKenzie explained that “while work can stimulate brain activity, long hours can cause fatigue and stress, which potentially damaged cognitive ability”[7]. Likewise, sitting for long periods is linked to increased risk of heart attack, muscle degeneration, and weight gain[8]. Have more time off work then, and you’ve got more time to move around.

Why a Three-Day Workweek is Good for Your Health

Evidently, there is a lot of conflicting information out there, but that is all the more reason to find balance between too little and too much work – and the three-day workweek could be the answer to that. In fact, it’s already worked in many instances. Take Mexican telecom giant Carlos Slim, for example. He believes in working eleven-hour shifts for three days per week, although he also advocates increasing the retirement age to 75. This way, he argues, he and his staff are able to enjoy life before they get old, leaving them happier, healthier, and more productive at work too[9]. Similarly, nurses who reduced their working hours to six per day were half as likely to need time off for illness and were three times less likely to take time off work. They reported being an average of 20% happier and they had more energy at work, meaning that they could do their jobs better[10].

Business Benefits

It’s not just about health either. There are many benefits for businesses themselves. Perhaps, many argue, that these long working hours and weekends spent toiling away are not actually a reflection of dedication and hard work, but are an indication of poor time-management or a need for delegation[11]. Parkinson’s Law, similarly, states that work expands to fit the available time, meaning that if you give a job a longer time span, it will take you that long to complete. Many businesses, therefore, don’t require all the time they give to specific jobs, and so a shorter working week should have little to no effect[12]. There are other business benefits too. The very fact that the three-day week improves staff health means that they will have more energy, be more productive, have less time off sick, and be happier, meaning that staff turnover is likely to be lower. This not only improves the productivity of the business but reduces business costs too[13].

The evidence in favor of overhauling the working week is growing every moment. One of the biggest problems faced by advocates though is a lack of agreement in the best course of action – reduce daily hours or increase them but reduce the number of days worked? Three-day or four-day working weeks? Whatever is best, one thing is for sure: it’ll include an overhaul at an infrastructural level but it will be worth it – for your health, for your happiness, and for your business.

[1] Anna Hart, 2016, Why we should all be working a 3-day week (and why it’s good for business too) [online], available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/work/why-we-should-all-be-working-a-3-day-week-and-why-its-good-for-b/, accessed: 09.27.2016

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gov.org.uk, 2016, Benefits of Working, [online], available at: http://fitforwork.org/employee/staying-in-work/benefits-of-working/,accessed: 09.27.2016

[4] Lauren Turner, 2013, Work longer, live healthier? How retirement can seriously damage your health, [online], available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/work-longer-live-healthier-how-retirement-can-seriously-damage-your-health-8618317.html, accessed: 09.27.2016

[5] Allard Dembe, 2016, Why a Four-Day Workweek is Not Good for Your Health, [online], available at: http://observer.com/2016/09/why-a-four-day-workweek-is-not-good-for-your-health/, accessed: 09.27.2016

[6] Ibid.

[7] Louisa Dillner, 2016, Should people over 40 work a three-day week? [online], available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/aug/08/should-people-over-40-work-a-three-day-week, accessed 09.27.2016

[8] Anna Hart, 2016, Why we should all be working a 3-day week (and why it’s good for business too), [online], available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/work/why-we-should-all-be-working-a-3-day-week-and-why-its-good-for-b/, accessed 09.27.2016

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Crouch, 2015, Efficiency up, turnover down: Sweden experiments with six-hour working day, [online], available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/17/efficiency-up-turnover-down-sweden-experiments-with-six-hour-working-day, accessed 09.27.2016

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