Workers’ rights groups have been making headlines lately, with lots of pushback from unions and activists regarding issues like the minimum wage and healthcare. There have been some big victories on behalf of workers, such as when Seattle passed a $15 per hour minimum wage (and now San Francisco, as well), a number of wage increases for the lowest earners were passed by voters during the 2014 midterm election, and construction workers were awarded more protections in New York City. With progress slowly being made on behalf of employees across the country and around the world, advocates may soon set their sights on a new goal: establishing a four-day workweek.
A four-day workweek is often met with differing reactions from workers and employers. The first thing that springs to mind as a potential byproduct of its implementation is a loss of productivity for businesses, and on the worker’s side, losses in the form of wages and benefits. However, a quick look at other nations with more worker friendly business climates indicate that that might not necessarily be the case.
According to CNN, the country whose citizens work the shortest hours on average per week is the Netherlands with 29. Coming in behind it are Denmark and Norway, both averaging 33 hours per week. Despite these low figures, all three of these countries’ citizens have an average annual income landing somewhere in the mid-$40,000 range. For comparison, the median annual income in the U.S. is around $54,000.
These countries also dominate the rest of the globe when it comes to employee friendly labor laws, with mandatory vacation days for both full- and part-time workers, extensive maternity and paternity leave, and flexible schedules being commonplace.
In the United States, big industries have led large lobbying campaigns to keep the rights of workers to a minimum in order to maximize productivity while minimizing labor costs. Big business has also engaged in campaigns to dismantle unions and fight against protective labor laws by increasing the use of temporary and contract workers, many of whom don’t qualify for benefits, time off, or employer-sponsored healthcare. Flexible scheduling has been on the rise in some sectors, making life easier for many Americans as the work-life paradigm starts to take a new form. Many tech companies — like Amazon, Facebook, and Google — have made waves for offering employees more flexible schedules, but so far the trend hasn’t become mainstream.
As far as the four-day workweek is concerned, the concept — for many American workers — is still in gestation. As the benefits become more known and the idea permeates, expect to see workers’ rights advocates bring the issue to local representatives. For now, analysts are keeping a watchful eye on northern European countries that are experimenting with it already. If the experiments are successful, as many expect them to be, look for the American push to gain steam.
Is it possible that the United States could duplicate the successes of a stunted workweek? Though it would be extremely difficult from a political and legislative perspective to get the ball rolling, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about it. Here are the top three reasons the implementation of a four-day workweek in the U.S. would be beneficial.
1. Countries That Work Less Are Happier
When it comes to happiness, no other area in the world tops the charts like northern European and Scandinavian countries. According to data from the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the top five happiest nations in the world are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Most of these countries have implemented many policies that Americans would probably be quick to associate with socialism, and also have relatively high taxation rates. However, their citizens are happier than any other, and after a quick cross-reference with average hourly workweek data, some very obvious overlap can be found.
As the U.N. states, “the report also shows the major beneficial side-effects of happiness. Happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more, and are also better citizens. Well-being should be developed both for its own sake and for its side-effects.” The U.N. points out that productivity and happiness appear to be linked, and that is something economists and industry leaders should pay close attention to.
It may be obvious that spending less time at work leads to happier employees, but with the U.N.’s data, there is some discernible proof in hard data. Happiness can also be tied to wages and many other factors, such as quality of life and life expectancy. There are plenty of other things in play, but overall, the report shows that worker friendly business atmospheres produce healthier populations.
2. The Economic Data Shows Shorter Workweeks Don’t Hurt
If shorter workweeks are leading to happier citizens who should be more productive, then what exactly does the hard data have to say? A look at the World Bank‘s GDP data shows some interesting trends. For starters, the United States has seen growth for the past five or six years, starting in 2009, right after the financial crisis hit. During that time, many people lost their jobs and wages stagnated or even decreased, possibly leading to a portrait of higher productivity for that time period. As the U.S. economy has recovered, jobs have returned and more people are back to work, but wages have not gone back up, leading to increased inequality, a shrinking middle class, and poor morale.
So worker contentment in the U.S. has shifted downward while productivity has trended up. The Netherlands has not seen a similar story, as the country’s GDP has fluctuated wildly over the past few years. Denmark has seen similar turbulence, although not the extent of the Dutch. Norway, on the other hand, has seen steady growth similar to the United States. All three of these European countries face a vastly different set of challenges than the United States, which could play a factor in the fluctuations.
Taking GDP into account, it’s hard to draw a solid conclusion from data over the past few years. Although it looks like American industry is seeing growth, it is coming at the expense of employee morale and overall happiness of its citizens. Shorter workweeks certainly haven’t tanked any of the leading three countries’ economies.
3. Increased Productivity and Other Savings
Is there a relationship between working longer hours and increasing productivity? Certain data appears to point to the contrary. According to European productivity data compiled by The Guardian, countries like the Netherlands show high productivity numbers, while also posting a low hourly average for workers. These numbers indicate that the happier employees are, and the shorter their average workweek, the more productive they turn out to be. As Uri Friedman of The Atlantic points out, the relationships can be complex, but the underlying point is that more hours spent at work doesn’t always mean productivity will go up.
American data shows a different story. Although productivity has gone up over the past year by 1.4%, it has come with an average increase in hours worked by 3.2%, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Once again, America is seeing productivity go up, but at a cost of more hours worked.
What other savings might a shorter workweek afford? Employers could save in lost productivity costs as employees would have more time to handle outside responsibilities. Instead of missing time at the office for doctor’s appointments or taking care of their children, employees would have more time and flexibility to focus on those things with an extra weekday off. There will also be a savings on employee’s part with a reduction in costs related to commuting, in the form of public transportation fees or fuel for their vehicles.
The U.S. economy is an entirely different animal from smaller European nations, but as American employers have decided to head one direction with policies relating to employees, countries like the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark have gone the opposite route. What those European nations have been able to do is raise their citizens’ happiness levels while increasing productivity, all while keeping their economies afloat.
An extra free day for American workers could make a huge difference for a large part of the population. While there are definite drawbacks and concerns to take into account, a four-day workweek is something politicians and industry leaders should take a serious look at. Not only could it improve morale and productivity, but also have enormous economic benefit over the long run.