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Would a 4-day working week solve our burnout problem, or is it all too good to be true?

Posted by for Mental Health

Could a shorter working week really help us all to feel less stressed, and if so, how realistic is it to expect a four-day week to become a reality? Stylist spoke with Will Stronge and Kyle Lewis, authors of the book Overtime: Why We Need A Shorter Working Week, to find out more.

You don’t need to be an expert to know the UK is plagued by burnout

Even before the pandemic, the issue was making headlines – government statistics from 2019/20 revealed that 51% of all work-related ill health that year was due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety – but the blurred boundaries and expectation to be ‘on’ 24/7 triggered by the shift to working from home have made things even worse.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that the current system isn’t working. So, could the introduction of a four-day working week go some of the way towards addressing these issues? 

The UK is currently in the process of finding out. Today (17 January), a four-day working week trial has been launched in companies across the country, which will see employees work one day fewer a week for no less pay.

The six-month pilot programme, which is being led by 4 Day Week Global along with the think tank Autonomy and the 4 Day Week UK campaign, will see companies adopt the 100:80:100 model. This means employees will work for 80% of the time for 100% of the salary, but will be expected to maintain 100% productivity.

Companies involved will get support from the organisations organising the trial, and researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College will look at the impact the trial has on productivity, employee welfare, the environment and gender equality.

According to Will Stronge and Kyle Lewis – authors of the book Overtime: Why We Need A Shorter Working Week – the move to a four-day week could make a big difference to the levels of chronic stress experienced by workers across the UK.

While the pair acknowledge that a four-day week is just one of “a number of solutions” necessary (the ‘right to disconnect’ – legislation which would give employees the right to ‘switch off’ outside of working hours – is another they stress the importance of), they believe cutting working hours could make a big difference when it comes to burnout.

Various studies have shown – and we point to the work of Sabine Sonnentag in the book – that regular time off is really important to our health and to avoid burnout,” Stronge tells Stylist.  

An illustration of a woman with a low battery sign on her back
Studies have shown that regular time off is key in the fight against burnout.

Holidays allow us to jump out of the world of work, rest and enjoy a relaxation period, but once you start again, you start to see symptoms of burnout creep in again. So having regular time off for rest and recuperation has an added benefit compared to just getting more holiday allowance.”

As well as giving people the time off they need to prevent burnout, Lewis points out that a four-day week can also be beneficial because it gives people more time to do things that reduce their stress levels.

“From my experience working with companies that have tried this, it definitely has a huge effect in relation to people feeling more rested, being able to do more activities that they enjoy doing and also being able to do other work obligations outside of paid employment, like caring for loved ones,” Lewis says.  

Amelie Gregory, 24, knows firsthand how beneficial working a four-day week can be. The company she works for – Reboot Digital PR – started a four-day week trial at the beginning of August 2021, with the aim of improving four key metrics: performance, productivity, work-life balance and overall employee welfare.

While, at first, she was worried about getting her work done in a shorter amount of time, Gregory says the experience has been an “extremely positive” one, and that the increase in productivity she’s experienced as a result of the change has quashed any fears of falling behind.

“The positive impact on my mental health has been overwhelming,” she explains. “Because none of my friends outside work are in the same position as me, I’m making sure I’m always doing something for me on the extra day off, and I’m trying to see what new hobbies I’m interested in; at the moment, I’m trying to teach myself sign language, roller skating and running.” 

She continues: “Having a day to try and better myself and spend time with myself is really rewarding. As a young woman, I think it’s really important to have ‘self-dates’ and I haven’t been able to do that in so long.”

A key aspect of the Reboot trial – and the kind of four-day week Stronge and Lewis advocate for in their book – is the reduction of working hours without a reduction in pay for employees. 

The pair – who both also work for the UK-based think tank Autonomy, which among other things, helps businesses to adopt a four-day week – say they’ve seen companies try to cut corners by doing things like reducing pay or asking employees to take shorter lunch.

A woman running outside with a cap on
A four-day week allows more time for activities which benefit wellbeing, such as exercise or creative hobbies.

“I think with all changes in the workplace there are always going to be dangers for bad implementation,” Stronge admits. “For example, a lot of people consider the four-day week to be compressed hours – like doing 40 hours in four days. But that’s not what we mean by it – definition is really important.” 

The pair also stress the importance of employers supporting employees through the transition period, to ensure no one feels like they’ll run out of time to get everything done (a common concern among those who adopt a four-day week trial).

“If companies are going to adopt this, it shouldn’t be on the individual employee to sort it out,” Lewis says. “Organisations need to think about this and plan in terms of their organisation and industry, but when you start to structure work with a group or organization-wide focus, it becomes a lot easier and more manageable to work in a four-day pattern.”

He continues: “It needs planning and a lot of focus, but in our experience, once people start – once they’ve done that kind of preliminary work and start the trial – nine times out of 10 these problems very much can be overcome.” 

With more employers and businesses trialling four-day weeks going forward, Stronge and Lewis are hopeful that this shift could make a big difference for the wellbeing of employees across a multitude of sectors.

“I’m actually incredibly hopeful,” Stronge says. “It’s been a really tough 18 months for people, and obviously not all workers have seen the benefits of remote work, but in terms of the sheer number of initiatives that have sprung up and the number of inquiries we’ve gotten at Autonomy to learn more about four-day weeks, the pandemic and the shift to working from home has shown that we can make that switch.”

Stronge continues: “For years people were asking to work from home for just one day a week because of caring responsibilities or because they needed to be in the house, and they were often denied because it was seen as too much of a jump. And then overnight, this huge experiment happens, and there’s this whole new arrangement of working.

“Long story short, I think it’s a really exciting conversation that’s been developed, and I think there’s a lot of hope.” 

How to start a conversation with your employer about a four-day week 

A woman talking to her employer about a four-day week
The first step towards asking your employer for a four-day week is starting a conversation.

Think a four-day week could be beneficial for your work and wellbeing? Here’s how to start a conversation with your employer, no matter what seniority level you’re at.

Bring it up in conversation

The first and easiest thing you can do to raise awareness around the benefits of a four-day week in your workplace is to talk about it with everyone you know.

“If you’re part of a trade union, have a conversation with your fellow trade union members,” Stronge says.

“And if you’re in a workplace, say ‘have you thought about this’ to your fellow employees. You could even bring it up with a line manager in this way and just say ‘have you ever thought about this because I’ve seen some good stuff – let’s have a conversation’.” 

Frame it as a win-win

A four-day week doesn’t just benefit employees – thanks to the increased productivity and happiness associated with such a system, it can also benefit your employer, too. Because of this, Lewis recommends leading with this point when you’re making your case.

“A lot of the people who get in contact with us at Autonomy are managers of companies and CEOs, because a four-day working week has benefits from the employer’s perspective as well,” he explains.

“I think it’s important if you go into the conversation with your employer by highlighting how it would help both the workforce and the company.”

Share resources

If you’re not sure whether your point is getting across, lean on educational resources and studies which highlight the argument you’re making.

“There’s loads of resources out there,” Stronge points out. “Obviously there’s the Autonomy website, but there’s loads of reports and so on.” 

Relate it to other issues

If your company is making a concerted effort to talk about the ‘future of work’ now restrictions have eased, you could bring a four-day week into the equation.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about flexibility and flexible working due to the pandemic, so relate your request to flexibility,” Lewis says.

“If your employer is up for allowing more flexibility then I think it’s really important that a shorter working week becomes part of the conversation – in order to be able to work flexibly you need to be able to work less, too.” 

Overtime: Why We Need A Shorter Working Week is out now

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This article was originally published in September 2021 and has been updated throughout.

Images: Getty

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.