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How COVID Could Make the Four-Day Workweek a Reality

With a pandemic draining our finances and mental health — as well as completely revolutionizing the office — we don’t need to work harder or smarter. We need to work less.

It’s Tuesday morning, which means that most of you are reading this while praying for three more days to spin by quickly, so that you can find something resembling real peace on the weekend. 

With coronavirus in the air and the pandemic still going strong (despite claims to the contrary from the president), it’s hard to imagine when much of working America will return to the normal habits etched into our collective weekdays: The commutes, the lunch breaks, the small talk and the wasted time in the cubicle. 

The work-from-home revolution shows no sign of slowing, even when the pandemic ends. For most American families, COVID-19 has meant more stress over finances and caring for antsy kids. And while the country may be “re-opening,” the question of how to do so safely is still elusive, beyond the obvious advice of keeping people separated, tested and equipped with protective gear. 

But the best solution amid so much crisis is staring us right in the face, and it’s been talked about for years: We don’t need to work smarter, or harder. We need to work less.

The idea of reducing hours while maintaining the same pay sounds like the kind of idea conservatives would roast as leftist propaganda. The case studies, meanwhile, tell a different story — one that reflects the reality of how (little) we work on a daily basis. You’re not alone if you suspect that you have plenty of time in the office to waste while still performing up to par. Alex Soojung Kim-Pang argues in his book Shorter: Work Smarter, Harder and Less — Here’s How that this is what justifies cutting hours without cutting pay. 

“A shorter workweek helps these companies be more productive, not less, and more attractive to first-rate talent,” he writes in The Atlantic. “Employees are healthier and use fewer sick days because they have more time to exercise, cook better food and take better care of themselves. Their work-life balance improves, they’re more focused and creative, and they’re less likely to burn out.” 

The clearest expression of this idea for the 9-to-5 office worker may be the four-day week, an idea borne of government furloughs but popularized by tech firms and the progressive left. People who have experienced permanent three-day weekends swear that the arrangement improves both work and play, even if they have to work longer hours on the four days. Better yet is a real reduction to 32 hours, which a number of companies have tried (to successful results). This isn’t all that surprising if you consider that a 2017 U.K. study found the average time spent working is two hours and 53 minutes each day. It seems to prove a very old adage known as Parkinson’s law: “Work complicates to fill the available time.”

The upside of cutting hours is great, both on bodies and mental health. Work is our top source of stress, and it makes people feel overstrained in all facets of their life. The primary cause of work stress is just the sheer workload. Vulnerable populations, like those with disabilities, or in dangerous and low-paying jobs, are impacted the hardest by work stress. And the thing that makes it all better is, essentially, time not working. The assumption is that work is good for our health, but “in almost every case, the negative is significantly greater than the positive,” concluded Robert J. Blendon, public health expert and professor at the Harvard Chan School. 

As usual, the details matter when it comes to reforming the workweek. More and more employers are already offering “compressed workweeks,” which often just put the onus on the employee to push harder while working longer days. The best health outcome for the American employee is to work in a world with less work, not just rearranged hours with higher productivity, which sounds more like a hustle-porn plan than a labor revolution. And all that talk about the need to work disguises the fact that modern research is finding that it’s more about the quality of work than anything else. One study found that just one day of work a week is enough to keep us mentally satiated. 

Actually cutting hours and championing the four-day week would be one of the few win-wins amid the pandemic. It’s a valuable experiment for the ways we can mold better balance into our lives, even after the sickness fades away. Pragmatically speaking, cutting hours and staggering shifts would allow workspaces to actually adhere to OSHA’s demands. Every household and family is coping with COVID in a different way (with staggering differences depending on wealth and race). But less work means more of, well, anything else. Time with the kids. Time for therapy. Time to find actual joy, or just another job. 

The pandemic and resulting economic crash is proving that we need radical new ideas for how and how much to work. There are many hard questions about racial and economic justice to face as cities reopen. The win-win in the short term, however, is clear: Less work, for the same pay, with the same results.