Esprit Consulting


Are we mistaking the ‘four-day work week’ for a silver bullet?

Trials of the four-day work week are afoot across the globe with proponents arguing that it is an effective means of supporting employee engagement and wellbeing.

Striving for increased engagement is a worthy objective. In its latest State of the Global Workplace research, Gallup found that 23% of global employees are engaged. Apparently, that’s a record high which is alarming given it indicates that over three quarters of the workforce are disengaged. That’s a troubling statistic as we know that engagement is positively correlated with wellbeing, motivation, performance and retention. Combine that with the fact that employee stress is at a record high, and we have a real issue.

How satisfying it would be then if the four-day work week turned these statistics around. Simply restructure the working week and ‘bingo!’ – engagement and wellbeing skyrocket. The silver bullet employers have been waiting for.

Yet, you and I know that silver bullets rarely, if ever, exist. Humans are complex beings operating in complex contexts and hence simple one-dimensional solutions are rarely the remedy to challenges.

And so it goes with the four-day work week. Gallup explored the relationship between days worked, engagement and wellbeing. Whilst individuals who work six-day weeks had the highest rates of burnout, lowest wellbeing and highest active disengagement, the picture was less clear when comparing the four- and five-day work week.

So, what’s going on? There are potentially several factors at play. I want to explore two of them.

First, the four-day work week is built on the assumption that work is inherently a bad thing and less time spent working is a good thing. If that is true, wouldn’t we all be attempting to dodge work as much as possible? How then do we explain the handful of people I have met recently who had comfortably retired only to return to the workforce again shortly afterwards? Or my coaching client who is undergoing cancer treatment and has every right to not be working but chooses to, regardless?

The truth is that work, for many of us, is a positive element of our lives. It gives us purpose. It gives us structure and routine. It gives us a feeling of achievement and contribution. It gives us relationships and a feeling of belonging. It gives us a forum to learn and grow.

Secondly, the four-day work week is built on the assumption that our engagement and wellbeing is built primarily on number of days worked. Yet, experience tells us this argument is flawed too.

Given the option to work four days a week in a job that you hate or five days a week in a job that you love, which would you choose? We thrive working with organisations, cultures, teams, and leaders that align with our purpose and values, make us feel seen and valued, and provide the resources to make a positive contribution.

If those elements are missing, a four-day work week counts for nothing. As Jim Harter (Chief Scientist, Worplace, Gallup) puts it, “The real problem is that most employees are poorly managed”. He goes on to say, “If instead of shortening the work week, employers focused on improving the quality of the work experience, they could nearly triple the positive influence on their employee’s lives”.

A confronting narrative to face as it demands solutions that are rather more challenging than altering the working week. The latter is structural and therefore is a relatively comfortable space to play. The former is human-based and therefore requires us to voyage into the murky world of motivation, emotions, relationship dynamics, personalities, and capabilities.

Yet wade into the murk we must if we truly care about increasing engagement and wellbeing. For where this is challenge, there is opportunity.

And the starting point for creating organisations that energise their employees is at the individual level. For what are organisations but a collection of individuals who have come together to progress a common cause? In particular, let’s focus on leadership. Leaders have a disproportionate impact on the culture of an organisation and the everyday experience of the individuals within them. As Marcus Buckingham reminds us, “People don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers”.

It is my firm belief that most people leaders intend to have a positive impact. Yet sadly, there is often a gap between intention and impact. Our task therefore is to help leaders build awareness of their impact, to motivate them around the significant responsibility and opportunity they have, and to equip them with the behaviours and skills to do the best job possible.

And that stuff can be hard, requiring effort, vulnerability and learning. In his TED talk, mountaineer Fredrik Strang asks the audience to raise their hands if they are afraid of heights.

A significant number of hands go up. He then asks them to raise their a again if they would like to work to overcome their fear of heights. Far fewer hands go up. Little surprise, the second option requires vulnerability and hard work.

But meaningful change is the result of hard work, not silver bullets. So, whilst I think it’s important that we continue to explore the pros and cons of the four-day work week, let’s ditch any expectation that it is the silver bullet that will solve our current engagement and wellbeing deficiency. Instead, let’s take a hard look at ourselves and ask what hard stuff we need to commit to to achieve positive change.

Esprit Consulting is a boutique leadership and organisational development consultancy that works across industries to cultivate engaging cultures and high performance.

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