The women at the Belgian nonprofit Femma decided quickly how to spend their new free time. One took up Spanish classes. Another studied flamenco dance. A senior manager revived her interest in art crafts.
So as a one-year experiment starting in January, Femma implemented a 30-hour workweek for its approximately 60-person staff, which effectively means most take their Fridays off. The employees are being closely followed through December by Free University of Brussels researchers, who are studying the impact of more leisure time on both the women and their children.
“Our colleagues are very happy with this new situation; they’re experiencing a lot more freedom,” said Eva Brumagne, the director of the Belgian nonprofit, who has started a book club focused on modern literature. “They have a much more balanced life, new hobbies and are spending more time with their children. People are saying their lives have slowed down.”
Femma’s experiment comes as part of a new push across much of Europe to reduce working hours, including through a four-day workweek. For much of this decade, the idea of a four-day week has been primarily championed by industry executives in certain business niches — like those in software development or sales — as a way to boost employee morale and hourly productivity.
But over the past several years, particularly in Europe, trade unions, leftist organizations and some academics have increasingly called for a far broader, economy-wide transition to the four-day week as a way to give workers a larger share of the benefits of growth.
Typically, critics of capitalism have called for redistributing the wealth it produces through higher taxes, government programs and a higher minimum wage. At least in theory, cutting working hours is another method of addressing the same problem — the unequal results of economic growth — but by reallocating time to workers, rather than money.
“For the first time since the start of last century, there’s real energy behind a politics of reducing working time,” said Peter Gowan, a policy associate at the Democracy Collaborative, a left-leaning think tank.
Americans work more hours annually than any of their Western peers, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data compiled for a forthcoming paper by the People’s Policy Project, a left-wing think tank, about strategies to reduce working hours.
Reducing American working hours to levels in Norway and Denmark would amount to giving U.S. workers more than an additional two months of vacation every year, the think tank found in a separate report last year. In 2016, the average U.S. worker spent about 1,700 hours on the job, while in Denmark and Norway they spent about 1,400 hours — about an 18 percent difference. In Sweden and Finland, the number is closer to 1,600 hours worked annually.
In Europe, signs abound of interest in continuing to cut working hours. The four-day week has won backing from some of the biggest unions in Ireland and Britain, while plans to dramatically cut working hours have been embraced by large unions in Germany, the Netherlands and France.
In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has commissioned a study on cutting working time to see if it should be incorporated into its party platform amid a push to do so by Momentum, a youth left-wing group. The Bank of England’s chief economist said earlier this month that the country is on track for a four-day week by 2050, according to the Telegraph.
But so far, the idea has failed to gain significant attention from the American left or labor movement. Jon Steinman, who worked at the Office of Congressional Ethics, said he is starting an advocacy group in the United States to push a four-day week, although the organization is still in its infancy.
The Democratic Socialists of America and the Justice Democrats, two left-wing groups that have pushed Democrats left, have not backed the idea yet. None of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have embraced the idea, despite similarly ambitious proposals for a federal jobs guarantee or a universal basic income.
Critics warn the push for a four-day week could backfire with unintended consequences for workers, including by cutting their pay through shorter hours. Some businesses that have adopted a four-day week have reported struggling to keep up, although others say doing so has bolstered overall productivity. Treehouse, a tech HR firm, implemented a four-day week before failing to keep up with the competition forced it to go back to a five-day week in 2016. Business groups have warned that mandating a shorter workweek would weaken industry, while hurting employment by increasing the cost of labor.
Workers may also face higher, not lower, levels of stress if the shorter workweek means they have to accomplish the same amount in a shorter amount of time, according to Allard Dembe, a retired Ohio State University public health professor who authored an op-ed arguing against the four-day week.
Xiaoxi Yao, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic who worked with Dembe, also said the four-day week could have serious negative health ramifications if it results in workdays lasting longer than eight hours.
“I think this may work for some people,” Yao said. “But when you try to work 10 or 12 hours per day, you increase your risk of injuries. When you work long hours, you’re more likely to get chronic diseases.”
But some advocates say the push to reduce working hours could be accomplished gradually, without the negative impacts. Governments could introduce a tax incentive to encourage companies to reduce working hours, or launch pilots in which some public employees work for four days at equivalent levels of pay, said Aidan Harper, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation spearheading the “4 Day Week Campaign” in Britain.
Changing norms among prominent private firms may eventually lead to a broader transition to a four-day week, according to Harper, much as Henry Ford helped popularize the 40-hour week in the 1920s. In the U.K., productivity has more than doubled among workers while working hours have barely reduced, according to Harper.
“It’s not just we’d mandate, ‘Everybody has Friday off,’ and tomorrow we would all move to a four-day week,” Harper said. “It’s obviously a gradual process — we want a gradual, steady, managed transition for all workers. We need to see that the gains from the economy can be shared not just in resources and money, but also in time.”