How a shorter work week affects productivity
Is a shorter workweek too radical, or is it radically brilliant?
In this article, we explore work ethics around the world, as well as the impact a shorter workweek can have on productivity and work-life balance as a whole no matter where you live or where you work.
Work ethic across the globe
Every region of the world has its own unique work style that stems from a mix of culture, religion, and other norms. But there's no question that some work styles are healthier than others.
In North America and Japan, specifically, working at least 40 hours per week is to be expected. For many employees, working over 40 hours per week is considered standard. This stems from a toxic societal mindset that if you're not working long days or weeks, you're not as career-focused or dedicated to your job.
Workism, or the belief that one's work and work ethic are central to one's identity in addition to economic growth, is the crux of this mindset. Some call it "hustle culture," some call it "workaholism," but no matter the term you want to use, it's taken over workplaces in both North America and Japan alike.
A study from Expedia found that Japanese workers had the most unused vacation days compared to countries like Germany, Spain, and Brazil. What's more, the study also found that 40% of Americans canceled a vacation due to work. Being busy has become a badge of honor for many people, and it's propelling them towards burnout, mental health issues, and in some extreme cases, even death.
In contrast, for countries like the Netherlands, work is far less of a priority compared to family, vacation, and leisure. That's not to say that they don't value work or working hard. But the Dutch would much rather spend quality time with loved ones or take a vacation over a higher salary. A report from BambooHR found that employees in the Netherlands worked an average of 29 hours per week in 2018, which is 17% less than the US.
Similar to the Netherlands, Denmark is another country that sees the value of working fewer hours. The same report from BambooHR found that employees in Denmark worked an average of 32 hours per week.
The case for a shorter work week
So what can be learned from these extremes?
Working longer hours doesn't necessarily mean a better quality of work and happier, more fulfilled employees. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
A study from Gallup found that 23% of people polled report being burnt out at work either "very often" or "always," and 44% of people surveyed felt burnt out at work "sometimes." In other words, two thirds of full-time workers experience some level of burnout.
But employees aren't just in a slump at work. A study from Statista found that 81% of participants felt that stress from work impacting their relationships outside the office.
What can be done about this? Well, the solution could be easier than one might think: shorten the workweek.
Several benefits come with working fewer hours, including:
- Improved work-life balance
- Better sleep
- The opportunity to spend more time with loved ones
- More time for leisure
- An increased quality of work
Working fewer hours and allowing more time for leisure or time with loved ones not only improves your quality of life, but it can make you more productive, too.
It's important to note here that working fewer hours doesn't mean not working as hard. Instead, it's a call to work smarter and to maximize the time you have while in the office.
Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a famous British author and historian, coined the proverb known as Parkinson's Law: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion." In other words, people usually take the allotted time (and sometimes more) to accomplish any task.
Parkinson's Law could be the secret to your most productive self. If you have a smaller window of time to complete your to-do list, you're more inclined to be productive because you know you have less time. By having a smaller work window, you make room for other non-work related activities, and subsequently a better work-life balance.
If you have a smaller window to complete your work, like a four-day workweek, you can better prioritize your to-do list. As a result, you'll not only get everything done, but you'll have more time to spend outside of work.
But how can you implement this work style into your week? Let's touch on a few methods you can implement today.
Protect your time
Meetings, appointments, and chatty coworkers are a few of the biggest hinderers of productivity. Block time in your calendar as "busy," not only so your coworkers know that you'd prefer not to be disturbed, but so you have time carved out for actual work.
Also, take note of when you're most productive and use that to your advantage. For example, if you know you're most productive in the morning, try getting to work or starting work a bit earlier than your coworkers so you can crank out a few items before others arrive. If the afternoon is your most productive time of day, try to schedule your meetings for the morning when possible and block out time in the afternoon to focus on your work.
Cut your time in half
Even if your company isn't going to change from a five-day workweek to a four-day workweek, that doesn't mean you can't give yourself that smaller work window.
Each week, take a look at your tasks for that week and determine how much time each will take. Then, cut that time down as much as you can without it triggering stress. You’re essentially applying Parkinson's Law to your workload and, as a result, creating more time for other activities.
Giving yourself less time to complete a task might be the secret to inspiring "deep work" instead of letting tasks that could be completed in two hours take twice as long.
Prioritize your tasks by time commitment
If you know that specific tasks take longer than others, prioritize your to-do list that way. Then, it's up to you whether you knock out the most prominent tasks first or if you want to check off the smaller, quicker tasks before the bigger tasks.
There's no right or wrong way—it's all about what's ultimately going to make you more productive. If you aren't sure where to start, try knocking out the smaller tasks first, then move on to the larger ones. See what works best for you and make adjustments as necessary.
Working less doesn’t mean sacrificing the quality of your work
Unless we take care of ourselves, how can we expect to create high-quality work? Our bodies and minds need rest and leisure to recuperate so we can continue to do our best in the office.
Figuring out the best ways you can be more productive not only helps you find better work-life balance, but it can help improve the quality of your work and benefit your career in the long run. Running yourself into the ground isn't the answer, and it's more than likely going to hurt your career.
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Photo Credits: Matthew Henry, Pexels, William Iven, Cathryn Lavery