Is it just me or are more and more articles appearing about the four-day work week? This opinion piece on CNN caught my eye just last week. Two things seem to be driving the discussion: 1) concerns about employee stress and burnout and 2) seeing it as a way to differentiate in a tight job market. The studies CNN cites suggest the four-day work week could be beneficial all around, for both companies and employees.

Why Addressing Employee Stress and Burnout Is a Company-Wide Issue

Addressing stress and burnout is not only important for employee satisfaction, retention and acquisition, but is critical to ensuring that business performance objectives are met. If your employees are stressed and burned out, they are not bringing their best selves to work every day. And they certainly aren't in a mental place to be innovative and creative.

It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the impact of a burned-out team. Just think of any department in your company and then ask yourself what the impact would be of the team being burned out. Across departments, you'd see a:

  • Drop in productivity.
  • Gravitation to easy, redundant work and avoidance of new, challenging projects — which will stifle innovation.
  • Lack of enthusiasm for the work and the company and a drop in motivation.
  • Breakdown in relationships between colleagues as employees become short-tempered or stop working on maintaining good working relationships.

As bad as it can be within a company, now extrapolate that to inter-company interactions. A stressed and burned-out sales person trying to sell to a stressed and burned-out prospect is a recipe for disaster. Customer service is another flash point. My eldest daughter has run a number of technical support teams and she’s dealt with both customers and service reps completely melting down with lots of crying all around. These are easy to see one-to-one examples but the issue is much bigger.

In crafting the ideal customer journey, we start with good intentions, trying to tailor the customer experience to the needs of each prospect. As pressure and stress grows within the company, the customer journey becomes corrupted in the quest for more leads, more MQLs and more SQLs. Prospects are faced with gates and annoying chatbots when they visit a website (I wrote about this last month) and a bombardment of sales calls and emails which, in turn, increases their level of stress and frustration — definitely not what you are aiming for. If everyone’s stress and burn-out level was dialed down a level or two we could rethink how we engage in a better way.

Related Article: The Cure for Burnout Is Not Self-Care

Always On, Always On Call

I'm interested in the idea of a four-day work week as a means to address employee stress and burnout having had a positive experience with a four-day week while working a summer job in college. The large textbook publisher I worked for had a four-day work week and asked when you were hired whether you wanted every Friday or every Monday off. I loved it, but have wondered since whether it would work today.

Back then — and here’s where I date myself — we didn’t have PCs or the internet and the associated distraction factors. The work day was very structured. At your desk by 8 a.m., a 20-minute break in the cafeteria at 10 a.m. (no coffee or food allowed at the desk), a one-hour lunch break at noon, another 20-minute break at 3 p.m. and then work ended at 6 p.m. It worked and it didn’t. There was a lot of focus on job productivity when people were at their desks but the breaks tended to extend beyond their allotted time because people were “exhausted” from their long work day.

Looking back, it looks quite quaint. In contrast, when I finished college my first job was for a tech company and the published working hours were 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with a 30-minute lunch break. Most of us didn’t call it a day until 7 p.m. and showed up on Saturday mornings to get a few extra hours in. This was the start of a long career in companies with similar work environments. What’s interesting is that none of us ever talked about burnout. That’s because when we left the office, we left work and shut down. The introduction of email didn’t change work–life boundaries as it took time for laptops to get to everyone. Early on, laptops only went to traveling personnel.The introduction of voicemail and then mobile devices was the tipping point. It was then the boundary between work and home became blurred.

Fast forward to today. Many if not most of us are working 10 hours or more and the workday seems to have no beginning or end. My daughter, who is currently living with us, is regularly on her laptop working at 11 p.m., albeit with "Criminal Minds" on her TV in the background. Is stress and burnout caused by working too many days, or is it caused by working all days and all hours? Are we as companies and managers setting that as an expectation? And, is that what is causing employee dissatisfaction and departures?

What I do know is that for many, job responsibilities, priorities, deadlines and management styles have, by default, created a situation where employees feel forced to work long hours and feel pressured to always be on call.

Learning Opportunities

I like the idea of a four-day work week but believe that we have a lot of preparatory work to do before we get there.

Related Article: Dealing With the Mental Health Pandemic at Work

How Can We Reimagine Our Workdays?

Pre-pandemic there was a notion that AI would create the next big shift in how we work. The theory being that as we automate more and more of our workflow, we’ll spend less time doing routine tasks and will instead focus on creativity and new projects, which in theory would free up our time and give us the means to change our work–life balance. Some of the extreme predictions suggest a time will come when we won’t have to work at all.

What is clear for now is that the pandemic has already created an enormous shift in our working environment and delivered both benefits and challenges. On the plus side:

  • The pandemic showed us how productive people can be while working remotely.
  • Eliminating a commute opened up time that could be used for personal pursuits (breadmaking anyone?) or more work.
  • Remote work introduced flexibility into our days with some logging on early, others much later.

The downside is the lines between work and home became even more blurred. I’ve seen meme after meme with the tagline, “I’m now living where I work.”

As we think about employee stress and burnout, let’s use the positives of our changed work environment — flexibility and the ability to work remotely — as a foundation and then build on that. I’m a big believer in virtual and hybrid work environments. I also think it helps company culture and work relationships to have some in-person interaction, so wouldn’t suggest eliminating in-person engagement entirely. With that as a foundation:

  • Give your employees an environment they like to work in — in-person or remote — whatever works for your team.  Introduce flexibility where possible to give your employees as much control as possible over their work day.
  • Take a hard look at the number of hours employees are working. If your team is working 12-hour days, that adds up to 60 hours a week. Is that what you want? Can you reasonably expect someone to do this and not become stressed and burned out? Are your employees drinking and eating at their desks without taking breaks? If so, that’s another trigger for stress and burn out. Digging into this takes effort. There’s a big difference between someone actually clocking 12 working hours and someone who logs on in the morning and off twelve hours later but has used blocks of time throughout the day for personal reasons (the benefit of flexibility). In trying to address the first issue you need to be careful that flexibility doesn’t become a casualty. One of the key factors contributing to long work hours is the number of meetings employees attend in a day. The more meetings, the less actual work time. I’m sure I’m not alone in predicting each day how productive I’m going to be based on the number of meetings on my calendar. The move to online meetings has maybe slightly improved the disruption factor, but we are still too overloaded and dependent on group meetings.
  • Have you created an always-on culture where employees are expected to check and answer emails and phone calls at any time, on any day? If so, you’ve created a situation where your employees are never not working. Consider giving your employees permission to shut down at the end of the day, the weekend and on days off. Many people use weekends and days off to catch up. But in doing that, we never recharge.

Related Article: Let's Not Go Back to 'Normal'

Start by Finding What's Causing Stress

Focusing on the mental well-being of your workforce is good for business but chopping off a work day isn’t going to get us there — at least right now. We need to start by identifying the causes of stress and burnout and figure out how to create a workday that works.  And then, and only then, will a four-day week make sense. And when that happens, I’ll be opting for Fridays off.

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