Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute
A Purposeful 4-Day Workweek
Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry
The Great Resignation has left many workplaces in total disarray. According to a recent survey, 83% of global respondents report that since their coworkers resigned, they have had to take on up to six new tasks outside their job description. While burnout has been prevalent over the past decade, one study found that nearly 60% of Millennials feel the Great Resignation has caused it to increase.
This uptick in burnout has given rise to things like Quiet Quitting, a concept that went viral on TikTok in July. “You’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond,” one TikTok user explained. “You’re no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life.”
Among those pushing back the hardest on burnout are Millennials – the generation well-known for prioritizing purpose. In more ways than one, this cohort is pushing back against the way America has long approached work, including how many hours equate to a full-time position. The four-day workweek is yet another change that is picking up momentum across the country. For companies with 500 or more employees, a new bill in the California State Assembly would make the official workweek 32 hours.
While many people support the shift, the questions are, “Will it work,” and “What will be the outcome?”
The first question has a lot to do with our current psychology. In 2018, Americans wasted a total of 768 million vacation days by failing to take them. For many employees, a cultural obsession with grit and a commitment to work above and beyond anything else has caused them to reject the time off they are entitled to.
Similarly, a 32-hour workweek assumes that most people are currently working forty. In truth, most Americans work well beyond this. One poll found that the average American works close to 47 hours per week, and that 18% of workers clock 60 hours a week.
At the end of the day, the shift to a 32-hour workweek isn’t just about people’s time, but about their inner orientation to work itself. If companies can support this shift, it could have a profound impact on individual lives. One longitudinal study found that over 26 years, executives who took less time off in midlife were likely to die earlier and experience worse health in old age. This confirms what research from the UK's Henley Business School reveals: that a four-day week leads to less stress, improved quality of work, and a heightened ability to attract and retain talent.
But the other benefits have just as much to do with health as they do with a sense of meaning. The more time off people have, the more they might engage in actual downtime. Once family obligations and to-do lists are checked off, people could spend more of their time off “doing nothing,” a kind of downtime that engages the part of our brain involved in memory consolidation, self-awareness, empathy, and envisioning the future.
Doing nothing helps people recognize the deeper importance of situations, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist and researcher at the USC Rossier School of Education’s Brain & Creativity Institute. “It helps you make meaning out of things,” she says in an interview with the BBC. “When you’re not making meaning out of things, you’re just reacting and acting in the moment, and you’re subject to many kinds of cognitive and emotional maladaptive behaviors and beliefs.”
While most of the conversation around purpose looks at how employees can participate in creating a more healthy or equitable society, it’s just as important for people to have the downtime to find meaning in their direct experiences and surroundings.
In the 1930’s, the 40-hour workweek was put into place in response to the 16-hour workdays so common during the Industrial Revolution. When Ford Motor Company implemented an eight-hour day, it not only saw more productive workers, but also doubled its profit margins within two years.
Best case scenario, the 32-hour workweek will yield something similar: more productivity and heightened profit. Only this time, the shift won’t have as much to do with reducing the physical fatigue caused by factory work and coal mining. It will have to do with making space for a deeper connection to a sense of meaning and the overall benefits that can bring.