Recently, Belgium announced a labor reform allowing for a four-day work week. The reforms also provided workers the ability to power off work devices and ignore work-related messages without fear of retaliation. The aim of the reforms was to increase productivity and strengthen both people and businesses. The United Arab Emirates, Scotland, Iceland, Japan, and Spain are among the few others that have either incorporated or begun a trial phase to incorporate, a four-day work week. The trials of the four-day work week have largely been a success, with the workforce experiencing a rise in productivity and happiness. This raises the natural questions: why is the four-day week so unpopular and will it ever be possible in the United States?
Four-day work weeks are unpopular among employers for two primary reasons: tradition and trust. The former is the more obvious of the two. Originally, in 19th Century England, the six-day work week was the norm. This caused many Englishmen to use the seventh day (Sunday) to engage in festivities such as gambling and drinking. This generally caused “Saint Monday” to emerge in which large amounts of workers would be absent from the workplace to recover from Sunday’s merriment. Employers soon relented and provided employees with a half-day on Saturday as a trade-off for guaranteed attendance on Mondays.
It was not until 1908 that Saturday transitioned from a half-day to a full day’s rest when several American factories chose to accommodate Jewish workers in observance of Saturday sabbath. By 1929, with the emergence of the Great Depression, the five-day work week became cemented in American society. The reasoning was that shorter hours could remedy the increasing underemployment.
Now, nearly a century later, with mills and factories being replaced by advancing technology, we have maintained strict adherence to the five-day work week. The changing landscape seems to have no effect on the old ways. And, to be clear, it makes sense. Many companies who consider transitioning into the four-day work week must recognize the unfortunate fact that they would be placing themselves at a disadvantage against those that favor the five-day work week. Several employers would essentially be shooting themselves in the foot. Additionally, there are certain professions that require a five-day work week. One example can be found in the legal profession. Courts operate on a five-day schedule; therefore, law offices should follow suit lest they risk missing a deadline or a court date. With some professions, the five-day work week is ingrained in its functionality and it is nearly impossible to separate the two. The only solution seems to be major government-implemented structural reforms like those incorporated in Belgium.
Additionally, for the four-day week to be possible, employers must trust their employees to compensate for the additional time off with greater output in performance. This is no small task given the potentially deleterious effects this could have on a business. However, the aforementioned studies conducted in various countries along with the continuing developments that will take place in Belgium may be enough to assuage the concerns of some skeptics.
As it stands, the four-day work week seems unlikely in the United States. The five-day work week is culturally ingrained in our society and most employers would not willingly place themselves at a disadvantage to others who operate on the five-day work week. If it took a global pandemic to make many employers realize that remote work was possible, one can only wonder what calamity would be necessary to pull the United States out of the old ways and into the four-day work week.