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Why Workers —And Employers— Need a 4-Day Work Week

Would your life be easier if your employer would let you work 4 days per week?

Richard Eisenberg (Photo credit: NextAvenue)
Richard Eisenberg (Photo credit: NextAvenue)
By Richard Eisenberg for AOL Jobs

I have a suggestion for America's employers that I think would make their employees happier and more productive: Offer them a four-day workweek.

Giving staffers one weekday off would be especially appealing to the biggest chunk of the American labor force – boomers.

Many of them could use the free day to take their parents to doctor's appointments or handle other eldercare duties, spend time with their grandkids, learn new skills and transition into retirement. Four-day workweeks can also let them cut their commutes. 

4-Day Weeks' Pay and Benefits

If you put in 40 hours during your four days, you generally get full pay and benefits. You might even keep your benefits by working 30 to 40 hours, though you'll likely take a proportional pay cut.

No matter how you structure a four-day workweek, though, your job needs to get done – either by you or by you and someone working the fifth day.

Compressed workweeks – the delightful term human resources people use for putting in 40 hours in fewer than five days – are "a great way to provide employees the flexibility to meet the demands of work and life outside of work," says Lisa Horn, co-leader of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Workplace Flexibility Initiative and partnership with the Families and Work Institute.

"A four-day workweek allows you to continue to contribute on the job while gaining the time to pursue a long-neglected avocation, to help care for the grandchildren or to simply enjoy the other parts of life," says Cali Williams Yost, chief executive and founder of Flex+Strategy Groupin Madison, N.J.

Brooke Dixon, co-founder and chief executive of Hourly.com, a site that matches job-seekers with employers, says "well above half our users are looking for something other than a traditional workweek."

Jay Love, the former chief executive of Indianapolis search engine optimization consultant Slingshot SEO, which has a four-day workweek told Inc. that this employee perk "is an amazing draw in the age of recruiting the best talent to your team" and leads to soaring retention rates.

What Makes 4-Day Workweeks Rare?

So why are employers with four-day workweeks so hard to find in America, especially when there seems to be such a demand for this benefit? (Never mind that the average workweek is far shorter than 40 hours in many parts of the world: 29 hours in the Netherlands and 33 hours in Norway and Denmark, for example. And don't get me started on best-selling author Tim Ferriss' Four Hour Workweek notion.)

Today, harried five-day-a-week workers must routinely, and sometimes furtively, scoot out for doctor's appointments, errands and elder care duties for their parents – and they're doing so more often. Employers often don't like it when staffers head out for these reasons.

According to the Captivate Network's recent Homing From Work survey of 4,000 white collar workers, 45 percent leave work for doctor and dentist appointments and 52 percent go out to buy gifts, greeting cards and flowers. There's been a 31 percent increase in running errands since 2011, the study says.

Yet just 36 percent of employers permit at least some employees to have four-day workweeks, says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. Only 7 percent allow all or most staffers to do their jobs this way.

"I don't believe the majority of workplaces are supportive of four-day workweeks," says Jessica DeGroot, founder of the Third Path Institute, a Philadelphia-based group that aims to help employees lead "integrated" lives.

Why employers oppose 4-day workweeks
1. Strong organizational norms on who gets ahead at work. DeGroot says managers tend to promote staffers who "put work first," which typically means showing up every weekday.

2. Four-day workweeks add complexity to managers' jobs. "It's much easier to say to everyone, 'Come in at the same time every day and work long hours,'" she says.

"Often, it isn't that employers don't want to offer four-day workweeks, it's that they're not sure what's in it for them," Horn says.

Of course, some types of jobs or workplaces don't easily lend themselves to four-day workweeks. And some employers must pay hourly staffers overtime if they put in more than eight hours a day to get the fifth day off.

Where the Perk Exists

That said, progressive employers in a variety of fields let all or a portion of their staffers work four days a week. (Technology and accounting firms seem to be leading the way.)

Everyone gets a four-day week year-round at tech educator Treehouse Island, in Orlando, Fla., and at Slingshot SEO. Chicago software company 37signals has 32-hour, four-day shifts from May through October.

When Work Works, a book published by the Families and Work Institute and SHRM, describes dozens of employers offering four-day workweeks and other types of flexible schedules.

Some enterprising employees, including ones at senior levels, manage to pull off their own four-day schedules.

Ivan Axelrod, chief operating officer for Provident Financial Management in Santa Monica, Calif., four years ago began taking Mondays off to provide child care for his granddaughter Madelyn, allowing her mom to work those days.

"Finding ways to interact with children and grandchildren just has a reward you can't get out of work," Axelrod told ThirdPath. He now provides caregiving for a grandson each week, too.

Different Ways They're Offered

Four-day workweeks can be done in many ways, with varying hours. For example, the 5-4/9 arrangement lets staffers alternate between weeks of five nine-hour days and ones with four nine-hour days, so you get a day off every other week.

Pat Katepoo, the Kaneohe, Hawaii-based head of Work Options, a firm that helps employees negotiate flexible work arrangements, thinks boomers might especially like working a somewhat kinder version of that: eight-hour days with every other Friday off, even if doing so means taking a small pay cut.

"That's a good, creative option for this age group," Katepoo says."They can enjoy longer weekends 26 times a year and with Monday federal holidays, get some four-day weekends. That would let them shoot up to Cape Cod or drive three states over to see their grandkids."

The Trouble With One Method

But I'm not keen on what's known as the 4/10 model, especially for boomers, even though it's the most widely used compressed workweek schedule.

This one requires employees to punch 10-hour days on each of their four workdays. But you can wind up so pooped after continually clocking in for 10 hours that you'll lack the stamina to make your fifth day enjoyable and productive.

"I'm 52 and I don't have the energy I had when I was 22," DeGroot says. "With a 4/10 schedule, I'd need the other day to recover and that defeats the whole purpose of a four-day workweek."

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