Four-Day Week vs. Six-Hour Day: How Do You Provide Work-Life Balance?

James Young
Four-Day Week vs. Six-Hour Day: How Do You Provide Work-Life Balance?

Work for four days and get paid for five. Sounds too good to be true? That’s the work-life balance approach that New Zealand-based family trust specialists Perpetual Guardian are currently trialling. For six weeks, full-time employees will work a four-day week with the same pay.

Christine Brotherton, Perpetual Guardian’s Head of People and Capability, says: “If employees are engaged with their job and employer, they are more productive. We believe efficiency will come with more staff focus and motivation, and this trial is a valuable and timely way to test our theories.”

How do reduced hours affect businesses?

Perpetual Guardian’s “compressed hours” approach means that the employee keeps the same job and the same pay but works one day less per week. Benefits for the employee include more time with their family (especially meaningful for staff with young children), to study, volunteer or take up a hobby. Additionally, it makes a very attractive package for current and potential employees.

Perpetual Guardian’s CEO Andrew Barnes believes that allowing people an extra day for family and ‘general life maintenance’ improves productivity and focus at work. Essentially, it comes down to time management technique: freeing up employees to concentrate on one life element at a time.

However, it’s unlikely that all companies will share this optimism. After all, a recent experiment among Swedish care workers showed that business costs went up by 20% when they trialled working a six-hour day.

This much-publicised trial was prompted by concerns about sickness absence, employee health, and a feeling that long days over many years is not physically sustainable. Absence did drop by 10% over the two years, but the business considered the increase in costs to be too severe. However, to fully assess the long-term benefits to employee health – and its impact on business performance – a study like this would require a much longer time-frame.

One way to avoid the short-term financial hit would be for businesses to reduce salaries pro-rata, but employees would have to opt-in to this agreement voluntarily. Amazon has trialled such an approach, which allows the employee to weigh up the potential benefits they receive with an improved work-life balance. For businesses, this can also be a cost-saving measure during times of tight budgets.

What do the experts say?

It’s one thing to look at Amazon and Perpetual Guardian for guidance, but is there any evidence that reduced hours or a better work-life balance means more productive employees?

Well, yes. A 1996 study by Shepard et. al showed that a flexible work schedule can increase employee productivity. The research group put the improvement down to employees having the opportunity to recharge their batteries when needed, which resulted in greater task-based efficiency and an improvement in employee retention.

More time to recharge also reduces an employee’s risk of ‘burnout’. According to Maslach’s theory, a high ‘workload’ is one of six work-life factors that can lead to burnout, a state characterised by exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. At the heart of this response is a mismatch between our work demands and the resources we have available to us – one of which is time to unwind from our job.

How can you improve work-life balance?

If your organisation is not able to cut working hours, but you still wish to see the improvement in efficiency that it offers, there are other initiatives you could consider.

Flexible and remote working has become particularly popular in the last few years. Providing employees with the flexibility to decide where and when they work has a huge impact on their sense of autonomy. This is instrumental in allowing employees to reach higher forms of motivation and engagement. Additionally, when employees feel like their organisation has taken the time to consider their needs and well-being, they are more likely to respond with positive work outcomes, including greater personal investments and organisational commitment.

Another alternative is to give employees the opportunity to use their work time as they please. Google famously had a ‘20%’ programme in which employees were encouraged to use one day a week to work on their own projects. The potential business benefit is clear: providing smart and self-motivated people with the chance to follow their intuition will lead to innovative solutions. For Google, it lead to Gmail, one of their cornerstone products.

If nothing else, think back to the tradition of ‘Summer Fridays’, when staff finish earlier for the weekend during quieter periods. Good for boosting trust and morale, it’s making a virtue out of what are (anecdotally) the least productive hours of the week.

Perpetual Guardian are ultimately offering this incredible-seeming deal for sound reasons: to make life better for their employees, to improve engagement and aim for a more productive and committed workforce. We’re looking forward to hearing more about their findings at the end of the trial period.

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