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The 5 Day Work Week. What is it and How does it affect us?

The way we work is constantly changing, and that’s due to employee needs and desires. Employees want to be able to have a shopping experience when it comes to their careers. Employees want the freedom to choose where, when, and how they work.

Today, the average workweek in the US is about 34.4 hours, five days a week; However, it has not always been this way.

History of the workweek

For us to start to understand the modern and flexible version of the workweek we all know (and love) today, we must understand the roots of the workweek itself.

The first known workweeks have been traced back to the Babylonians, with their whopping seven-day workweek. During this time, 4,000 years ago, working all seven days was thought to increase productivity.

This lifestyle of all work, no play, eventually caught up with its workers, which led to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This act called for eight-hour workdays, 40-hour workweeks, and established minimum wage, overtime pay eligibility, recordkeeping, and child labor standards. Although President Roosevelt may be given the credit and praise to our modern workweek, he was, in fact, not the first person to institute this five-day workweek into the US.

5-day work week

Arguably the most influential business owner to institute this five-day workweek was none other than Henry Ford.

Henry Ford, father of the Ford motor company, instituted a five-day, 40-hour workweek for his factory employees. Now, Ford was no fool and was not only doing this out of the kindness of his own heart. Ford was a businessman, so he understood that a five-day workweek with eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest would encourage working people to vacation on weekends, shop on Saturdays, and have ample free time to fill during their daily eight hour recreation time.

With more people having time for recreation, Ford understood that they would then require more clothing, eat a greater variety of food, and of course, were far more likely to be in the market to buy an automobile to travel around.

The automobile manufacturer explains it best in an interview with the author, Samuel Crowther discussing that “Just as the eight-hour day opened our way to prosperity in America, so the five-day workweek will open our way to still greater prosperity. It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workers is either lost time or a class privilege.”

Just how Henry Ford found that the seven day work week was unrealistic and outdated. It has come to the attention of many modern-day business owners that the five-day, 40-hour workweek may be outdated as well. 

Future of the workplace

When we think of the future, we expect our world to be so much more extravagant than they are now. It’s been predicted that we would all have access to flying cars by now, but I am behind the times, still driving down the street in my Ford Focus. It was also predicted in 1928 by Economist John Maynard Keynes that technological advancements would bring the workweek down to 15 hours within 100 years. It looks like we have just about eight more years to make this happen. Can you imagine that? We would have so much free time. I would not know what to do with myself. What would you do with your free time?

 It’s interesting to note that predictions of how the workweek will evolve are pretty consistent: the farther into the future we go, the fewer hours we’re predicted to work. You know, the whole work-life balance thing.

Some companies have already taken action on this shorter workweek trend. Companies like Basecamp, Perpetual Guardian, and even Amazon have implemented trial periods for shorter workweeks, and the results have been positive!

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand based firm that manages trusts, wills, and estates, found in their study allowing employees to work four days a week while being paid for five says that the experiment was so successful that it hoped to make the change permanent.

Perpetual Guardian said that “Staff were more creative, their attendance was better, productivity increased, they were on time, and they didn’t leave early or take long breaks,”

 In short, Perpetual Guardian found that their employees’ actual job performance didn’t change when doing it over four days instead of five.

Health Benefits of a shorter workweek

I am sure you’re not surprised when I tell you that numerous reports and studies have shown that the pace put on our workforce in the U.S. is to blame for many health issues. These issues include sleep issues, obesity, and an overall weakened immune system.

According to the Center for a New American Dream, employees that work more than 11 hours a day are 2.5 times more likely to develop depression and 60 times more likely to develop heart disease.

This expected pace and pressure that is forced upon the American workforce has contributed to the United States having the shortest life expectancy of any wealthy country in the world.

The collective value in a healthy work-life balance reveals that we could see a significant improvement in our physical and mental health just by shaving off a few hours in the workday or cut back the workweek by a day.

Aside from the physical and emotional health benefits derived from a shorter workweek, there would also be an environmental benefit. A decrease in work hours by just 10 percent would result in a 15 percent in a person’s carbon footprint.

Downside of a shorter workweek

Beyond increasing productivity, improving morale and well-being, there does seem to be a downside to the four-day workweek. This downside being that the five-day workweek may have so much cultural inertia that it just cannot be changed.

With the five-day workweek ingrained into our society, it is hard for companies to tell their employees to not come in on Fridays because they then would be at a disadvantage in a world that favors the five-day workweek.

David Stephens, a consultant based in Houston, Texas, may have a solution to this issue.

In a LinkedIn post, David describes a scenario where employees will work 40-hour weeks, but over four days rather than five.

The company divided itself into two teams. One would work from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. from Monday to Thursday, and the other would work those hours from Tuesday to Friday.  The teams would switch schedules every week so that every two-day weekend would be followed by a four-day weekend. Stephens reports that the results were positive. The company was open five days a week, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. He claims that morale skyrocketed. Employees took fewer sick days, visiting the doctor in off hours rather than during the workday.

The goal of any company is to create a workplace where productivity thrives. Although many business owners might gag over the thought of shorter workweeks, it appears to be an untapped way for companies to bring on and retain high-quality employees.

Not sure what workweek style is right for you?

  • Survey your employees
  • Check out case studies
  • Examine workweek data
  • Go for the flexible environment that allows everyone to make their own decisions
  • Experiment with different workweek lengths
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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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