Work Smarter, Not Longer: Is a 35-Hour Workweek the Solution?

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inner-banner Work Smarter, Not Longer: Is a 35-Hour Workweek the Solution?

People Performance

April 26, 2024

Idea at a glance

Are you tired of burnout and high turnover rates in your company? Do you want to boost productivity and improve work-life balance for your employees? Well, have you considered a 35-hour workweek? It’s a proposal that’s gaining popularity as a potential solution to our workaholic culture. But before you make any hasty decisions, let’s explore the pros and cons of reducing the working week whilst maintaining the same pay. Is this the answer to your company’s problems, or could it lead to more trouble than it’s worth? Keep reading to find out.

 

Improved Work-Life Balance

A 35-hour workweek can significantly improve work-life balance, making it a great option for organisations prioritising this goal. Reducing the number of hours rather than days circumvents many of the issues brought about by the four-day working week, particularly regarding the increased stress and burnout caused by longer hours. 

A study in South Korea has shown that reducing working hours can improve mental health and reduce stress and anxiety levels. Another conducted by Henley Business School in the UK found similar positive effects. Within the UK one, weekly hours were reduced from 37.5 to 34, finding that the improvement in work-life balance had a knock-on effect:

  • Higher levels of job satisfaction
  • No negative impact on overall productivity; some cases actually improved
  • Positive impact on employee retention.

Clearly, the results extend far beyond merely work-life balance with this study demonstrating many of the potential advantages of opting for a 35 hour week. Jason Fried, Co-Founder of Basecamp, further supports this point, stating:

“A shorter workweek leads to a healthier and happier workforce, which leads to higher productivity, better employee engagement and retention, and ultimately, higher profits.”

 

Employee Retention

Offering a shorter working week can boost employee retention, particularly for those with family or other caring obligations. Studies in France and Sweden found that reducing hours led to a more stable workforce with lower absenteeism and work-related stress. The French study found that it was particularly effective for workers with health problems, low-skilled workers, and women. Unfortunately, there are no UK-specific studies on the effects of this. However, the US found that workers were more likely to report being satisfied with their jobs and less likely to look for another as a result. Given the cultural, political, and historical differences between France, Sweden, and the US yet all three countries had similar findings, one could cautiously speculate that these findings might be mirrored in the UK.

This is an important consideration because high staff turnover currently costs organisations in the UK £4.13 billion a year. Moreover, this could be a particularly pertinent solution for the retention of younger generations. Deloitte’s survey found that a significant percentage of Gen Z (74%) and Millennials (66%) believe that organisations should address social issues such as work-life balance and well-being. As these generations have the shortest tenure of 1.3 and 4.2 years, respectively, improving work-life balance can help organisations retain these younger employees who are more likely to leave their jobs over such issues. By implementing a shorter working week, businesses can retain valuable employees and improve their bottom line. 

 

Creativity & Innovation

In many cultures, such as the Japanese concept of ‘kaizen’ (continuous improvement), it is believed that taking breaks and having more leisure can increase creativity and innovation in the workplace, summarized by Abraham Maslow who states:

‘Almost all creativity requires purposeful play.’

Within the Dutch food and beverages sector, a 10% reduction in working hours led to a 2.4% increase in innovation. With a shorter working week, employees may have more time to pursue creative activities, hobbies, or interests, which can lead to fresh ideas and approaches in their work. Interestingly, a Japanese IT company found that reducing worker hours led to an increase in creativity but not necessarily in innovation. Essentially, there was higher engagement, and the number of new, useful ideas/solutions was increased but the success rate in terms of implementation of said ideas was unaffected. Therefore, whilst the 35 hour week may increase creativity increasing an organisation's overall amount of innovations, it’s unlikely to improve the ratio of successfully implemented solutions to unsuccessfully implemented.

 

Productivity

The increase in work-life balance can also boost productivity. Even when productivity remains the same overall, this is technically an increase as the overall hours have been decreased. Byrson and Forth found that reduced hours resulted in higher productivity levels through a reduction in absenteeism and presenteeism. Moreover, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 2019 mirrored similar results finding that working 35 hours could increase productivity.

However, not all studies demonstrate increases in productivity, with many reporting no change like the one conducted at the University of Warwick. Moreover, it is not just the reduction of hours that can increase productivity; simply giving employees more control over their work time can also increase well-being and productivity. Therefore, it is important to consider whether the increases within these studies are due to reduced hours, increased flexibility, or a mixture of the two. At the very least, most studies demonstrate no negative impact on productivity.

 

Reducing Gender Inequality?

Interestingly, the TUC study discussed above also found that the shortened working week could help address issues of gender inequality. The study found that women are more likely than men to work part-time. Therefore, a shorter working week could enable women to balance work and caring responsibilities more effectively, potentially reducing the gender pay gap. This was further supported by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2018, which found that shortening the working week could enable women to take on more paid work. Introducing it as a company policy eliminates the need for women to negotiate this themselves, which studies have found leads to them being perceived as less committed and competent in their roles. However, whilst this may afford more flexibility to working mothers who wish to balance career and caring responsibilities, it does nothing to address the underlying assumption that this is primarily the women’s responsibility. It could even be argued that by reducing the working week to 35 hours, without a shift in societal expectations, this may actually reinforce existing preconceptions about gender roles.

 

Reduced Output

Additionally, in some cases, a four-day workweek may, understandably, lead to reduced output or productivity. At the end of the day, when people have less time to complete tasks, it’s somewhat intuitive that less can be done. Hager et al. (2020) reviewed 14 studies from different countries and industries, finding mixed results regarding the impact on productivity. Clearly, reducing employees’ hours does not result in one clear effect on productivity – it can have no change, increase or decrease depending on the organisational context, culture, and baseline productivity. Reduced output was recorded most commonly in smaller and less productive firms, potentially indicating this style is less suitable for SMEs. 

Moreover, adopting a shorter working week may harm a company’s perceived competitiveness and drive among employees, which could have a negative impact on performance. Studies suggest that reduced working time can boost employee satisfaction and health but may also lead to lower productivity and competitiveness. A recent study in Spain found that this could also affect employment opportunities and wages for workers. Therefore, it’s crucial to carefully consider the potential consequences before implementing a shorter working week.

 

 

While a shorter working week may not be a magic bullet for solving all productivity woes, it’s clear that it has the potential to bring about significant benefits. But whether or not this is the right choice for your organisation is ultimately up to you. As a business leader, it’s important to consider the unique needs and goals of your team, as well as the specific context of your industry. Whatever decision you make, be sure to prioritise the well-being and productivity of your employees above all else. After all, they are the lifeblood of your business.

 

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