Less is more when it comes to working hours

The more we work, the less we achieve. That just doesn’t seem right, does it?

And yet, in one very important sense, it’s true: as study after study has shown, the longer our working day, the less productive we become (see John Pencavel’s study The Productivity of Working Hours for an overview).

We have known this for over 100 years. Back in 1908 Ernst Abbe’s seminal study of working hours at the Zeiss lens laboratory concluded that workers should be limited to an 8 hour-day, because working for 9 hours caused them to make more mistakes – and that this, in turn, forced them to spend yet more time correcting these mistakes. 

However, in most workplaces today, it is much harder to measure productivity than it was in Abbe’s day. A lack of measurable output causes us to focus on input as the only tangible sign of a worker’s effectiveness. Those who work longer hours are therefore regarded as the most valuable employees and rewarded accordingly; those who leave on time are derided as part-timers. 

In more recent years, academics have become more and more concerned about the effect this is having not only on productivity, but on health and well-being. In a series of studies since 2009, Marianna Virtanen has found that an 11-hour working day doubles the risk of depression, creates mild cognitive loss from middle age and predicts early dementia.

Working long hours doesn’t make sense on any level. Yet we continue to do it.

Which is why it’s so refreshing to see that a New Zealand financial services company has taken an even more radical step than Zeiss did back 1908: trialling a reduction in the working week from 5 days to 4 days, without increasing the hours worked per day, or reducing salaries one iota.

And, in the pioneering 8-week study, Perpetual Guardian found that its employees were just as effective in 32 hours spread across 4 days as they used to be in 40 hours spread across 5. 

How so?

Well, employees were invited to come up with initiatives that would help them be more productive. The best of these were worked through and implemented during the trial – things like greater automation of manual processes and the reduction of non-work-related internet usage. After the 8-week trial, not only was productivity constant, but stress levels were down and life satisfaction up significantly.

No doubt, as the Perpetual Guardian leadership team says, there are still more lessons to learn from the trial and improvements to be made. No doubt, also, the novelty effect and the immediate, tangible prize on offer (of winning an extra day off) played a part in the success of the trial. Whether that effect would be sustained over time is open to question. The company’s board are reportedly now considering how to introduce the four-day week in all appropriate areas of the business, so sooner or later we should get the answer to that question. 

For now though, we can conclude that this trial shows what’s possible with enlightened leadership, smarter working practices and motivated employees.

The New Zealand government is reportedly interested in extending the trial to other companies. It would be wonderful if a few British companies also stepped forward.