The Washington Post
Four-day workweeks: A dream or divisive idea?
“Hellooooooo?” I can just about hear an echo in the lonely, cavernous D.C. Metro station, it’s so empty.
This is the new Monday in the nation’s capital, 7:30 a.m. at Union Station — approaching peak commuter time. And I’m having a hard time finding people to interview because the pandemic revolutionized work life for the cubicle crowd.
Loudly and clearly, American office workers have shown they can still deliver the goods while getting a slipper-footed, mascara-and-shave-free, elastic waistband exhale twice a week.
When coronavirus cases waned and office overlords attempted to restore five-day mandates, we revolted — joining the churn of people questioning how much space work should occupy in our lives. We seized power, fashioning a hybrid schedule resembling a four-day week.
It’s been an office culture coup. And that’s a problem.
Because that exhale is only available to roughly 1 out of every 4 American workers, becoming another chasm in our increasingly divided society. Unless we make four days the national standard, as they did in Belgium, the privileges will help, well, the privileged.
“You mean, just working four days a week is what they’re talking about? The weekend would be three days?” said Tony Briscoe, his eyes going dreamy for a moment to imagine such a life. “Man.”
He’s on the Metro with knee pads over his work pants, ready for another tough day at a home improvement business. Monday was for a walk-through, then some drywall work.
Folks like Briscoe who work with their hands, legs and backs as well as their minds — about 75 percent of our nation’s workforce — can’t phone it in. “I usually work six or even seven days a week right now.”
But with creative thinking, their lives can change. I know this firsthand.
My dad worked for the city’s water and sewer company, so he couldn’t flex time fixing a burst water main or troubleshooting heavy machinery. But the utility company tried changing around their shifts, and when he switched to four 10-hour days, it was a wonder for the family.
But most American workers remain trapped by the five-day workweek we established nearly 100 years ago. Back then, it was revolutionary. Championed by trade unions, Henry Ford made it official for his workers in 1926, cutting work hours but not pay.
“The country is ready for the 5-day week,” he said, in his 1931 book, “Moving Forward.” “The industry of this country could not long exist if factories generally went back to the 10hour day, because the people would not have time to consume the goods produced. For instance, a workman would have little use for an automobile if he had to be in the shops from dawn until dusk. And that would react in countless directions, for the automobile, by enabling people to get about quickly and easily, gives them a chance to find out what is going on in the world which leads them to a larger life that requires more food, more and better goods, more books, more music, more of everything.”
And 100 years later, it’s time to take a similar look at what our lives look like.
Maryland lawmakers are proposing a bill for a pilot program to offer incentives to businesses that operate on a four-day schedule.
Nearly 3,000 workers across 60 different companies in Britain did that last year. They shifted to a four-day, 32-hour workweek. Researchers from Boston College and the University of Cambridge, along with the advocacy group 4 Day Week Global and the research group Autonomy tracked productivity, profits, worker attitudes, morale, absenteeism and turnover.
The results were breathtaking — in the U.K., Iceland, Spain and everywhere else the experiment was tested. (Only in Sweden, where an orthopedic unit went all the way down to six hours a day, four days a week, was the experiment costly and criticized.)
The U.K. companies reported a 35 percent increase in revenue overall, compared with similar periods in the previous year and fewer people called in sick. A huge majority — 91 percent — are sticking with the four-day schedule after the pilot program.
“The health and well-being of employees also improved, with significant increases observed in physical and mental health, time spent exercising, and overall life and job satisfaction,” according to the report on the pilot program. “Rates of stress, burnout and fatigue all fell, while problems with sleep declined.”
That all makes so much sense. Because how often do you slide into Sunday night exhausted?
There are three R’s you need to get done over the weekend: rest, repair and recreate.
Maybe it was possible to get all those things done in the 1920s. But there’s a big difference. In 1920, just 20 percent of the American workforce was female. That meant that 80 percent of the nation’s households had women who stayed home and did so much of the day-to-day work that allowed a family more recreation and resting time during the weekend.
Today, more than 57 percent of women are part of the labor force, and they frequently shoulder the work of repairing a household — the laundry, the fixits, the landscaping, the dishes — which often can’t get addressed until the weekend. And with just two days off, rarely do all three Rs needed for sanity get addressed.
“Time with my family. That would be so important,” said a 40-year-old security guard I met at Union Station. He didn’t want me to use his name because he didn’t want his new employer to think he wants to work less, but his eyes lit up when I explained the study. “I have three kids. Oh, to spend more time with them,” he said, holding his hand to his heart.
Briscoe, the man with the knee pads on the Metro, was sitting next to a younger man.
“This is my son,” he said, pointing to him. “He is severely autistic. Like I help him get dressed, like that. He goes to work with me. But it would be nice to have more days with him when it’s just us, not my work.”