Could the 4-day workweek remedy employee burnout?

A condensed workweek could help remedy workforce fatigue but the nontraditional arrangement has a number of roadblocks for widespread implementation.

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Amid a tight labor market, companies are having trouble filling open positions and retaining top talent as a long-speculated Great Resignation comes to fruition. At a time when conversations around workforce burnout are front and center, a condensed workweek could help remedy the situation, but what's holding back more companies from offering this non-traditional arrangement?

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Employee burnout: Factors and remedies

Last month, Visier published the results of a survey highlighting the myriad factors behind employee burnout and various benefits that could potentially mitigate this fatigue. In order, the main components contributing to employee burnout include "being asked to take on more work" (52%), toxic work culture (33%), "being asked to complete work faster" (30%) and micromanagement/being observed on the job (24%), according to the report. While some of these complaints may not be necessarily new, there could be other confounding circumstances at play.

"Many of the same issues that are driving employee burnout existed before the pandemic, but uncertain times and pandemic-related stress makes things worse," said Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer, Visier.

A portion of the survey asked respondents to identify potential employer-offered benefits that could help "alleviate burnout" with flexible work hours (39%) mental health support (31%) topping the list. An employer-provided four-day workweek (24%) also made the list and was on par with wellness programs (24%) and paid sick days (25%) for many respondents.

Work-life balance and WFH drawbacks

Remote work presents new logistical and more abstract challenges for telecommuters. Over the last year, the home has pulled double-duty as a remote office and private residence for many families, blurring the lines between work and one's personal life at the same time. Interestingly, the popularity of nontraditional work schedules could be a byproduct of the ongoing switch to downsides of remote and hybrid work.

"Four-day workweeks are another way of setting boundaries that seem to have disappeared during the mass shift to working remotely (for those jobs that can be remote)," Rubenstein said.

"There are 'extra' demands on certain segments of the workforce — especially people who care for children or adults," Rubenstein said. "With a shorter workweek, they can have some more quality uninterrupted time, or even some time for themselves, rather than fitting in all the extra family duties."

For remote caregivers, increased flexibility may be nonnegotiable moving forward after a year of remote work. According to a Blind poll published in April, 54% of respondents who had dependents at home said they needed "a flexible hybrid schedule" and about one-third (37%) said they needed this flexible hybrid option as well as daily flexible hours.

Changing standards: Four-day workweek roadblocks

Until the onset of COVID-19, companies had been reluctant to switch to fully remote operations, instead opting to offer the work model as an employee perk intermittently throughout the month. Historically, the four-day workweek has been even less conventional than the remote work model was considered pre-pandemic. It's important to note that there may be institutional and managerial roadblocks hindering the rollout of the three-weekend standard.

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A recent Bizagi report entitled the "State of Process Innovation" focused on employee attitudes about a four-day work model and challenges thwarting implementation of such an arrangement. About half of respondents (44%) cited the "demands" of their company's industry that cannot "accommodate one less day of work per week" as the reason they could finish their jobs in a four-day model, according to the report.

The Bizagi survey posed a hypothetical management question, asking employees what would likely happen if they were to automate portions of their job so they could accomplish these tasks in four days and told their boss about it. Situationally, 46% said their boss would assign them "more work to fill the fifth day of the workweek" and about one-quarter (26%) said their boss would not allocate additional work, but would "still expect [them] to show up for work five days a week" and 25% said their boss would let them adopt a four-day workweek, according to the report.

But, why have employers historically preferred the five-day workweek to a condensed model?

"Many jobs are still about hours and effort rather than outcomes, and not everyone is enlightened on how to manage workers where outcomes are more important than hours," Rubenstein said. "9-5, Monday-Friday is a ritual, but some people view it as a right."

Additionally, he said companies have myriad reasons to "resist change" on this front, (including contractual and operational considerations), while cautioning that the four-day workweek isn't "guaranteed to solve the burnout challenge."

"They might be a retention solution for some workers, but might cause more problems for others," Rubenstein said. Employers like 'sameness' because it's easier to communicate and makes things seem fair. Sameness does not always result in greatness when it comes to how we manage talent."

The ongoing hybrid work experiment at scale is anything but "sameness" or the traditional status quo for companies and workers alike. Over the last year, many companies adopted hybrid models and some have made long-term commitments to remote work. Situationally, employers could be receptive to implementing non-traditional work arrangements.

"I think we are moving to an age where employees expect flexibility, but have not fully realized what the cost of that flexibility means," Rubenstein said. "For some, the four-day workweek might mean a day to "catch up on work" the way they used to use the weekends. For others, it's a gift of time for activities outside of work — and they will use it wisely."

This viewpoint, Rubenstein explained, is all dependent on a person's preferred work style, the nature of their work as well as their level of self-discipline.

Aside from burnout mitigation and talent retention, a four-day workweek could also act as an opportunity to attract new talent; a timely consideration amid worker shortages and a tight labor market. Could employers offering a four-day workweek help them attract top talent in the months ahead?

Whether employers will deliver a four-day workweek in the months ahead remains anyone's guess, but in the short-term, Rubenstein said companies should "embrace flexibility" in "many forms."

"Four-day workweeks are a great start. Many employers have already had a tradition of giving employees half or full Fridays off in the summer," he continued. "Try out these "summer Fridays" first and see what actually happens to productivity."

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