Providing nutritious food to those who couldn’t afford it took on a new urgency in the pandemic for Metro Caring, a Denver nonprofit that would love to end world hunger.
But demand didn’t let up. With the subsequent migrant crisis, inflation and a reduction in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, requests for food continued and the ongoing demand led to worker fatigue and burnout. CEO Teva Sienicki said she noticed more employee absenteeism and staff “showing up but not really being there.” The company asked workers: How often did you feel completely spent at the end of the day?
“We had a pretty high number of folks who were burnt out” nearly half the time in their roles, she said,. “And then we also asked, ‘Have you thought about leaving?’ That number also was quite high.”
So, she tried something else: A four-day workweek. This wasn’t a four-day week where workers still put in 40 hours. Nor was it working four 8-hour days and getting paid for 32 hours. This was about finding more work-life balance, as well as efficiencies to get what truly needed to be done in 32 hours and paid for 40 hours.
The shortened workweek is a concept backed by research, labor history and pilot programs organized by 4 Day Week Global in New Zealand. For more than a year, 41 companies in the U.S. and Canada and roughly 1,000 workers participated in the pilot through April. As of July, none have returned to the traditional five-day week, citing improved worker mental health, “great satisfaction” with business productivity and employee retention, and “a 15% average increase in revenue.” Workers also averaged a 32.97-hour workweek, down from 38.
Colorado already has some familiarity with shorter weeks. The state has had more school districts on four-day weeks than most of the nation, often due to budget constraints and problems recruiting teachers to rural areas where pay is low. A few local organizations are going through the pilot program too, including the police department in Golden (they are more than halfway through and hope to share results in November, according to a spokesperson).
There’s a universal appeal for workers, who are seeking a better work-life balance. And there’s a perception that people are more productive or are better problem-solvers if they’re well rested. Companies from Kickstarter to Microsoft Japan have adopted some of the ethos, though it hasn’t quite changed U.S. policy or made it into labor union contracts — at least not yet.
It may seem like a tough sell to convince company executives and owners to try it. But according to the global organizers, the leaders of a company are often the reason for the switch.
That was the case of Metro Caring.
“The short story is that I got burnt out,” Sienicki said. “At the time, I was the only CEO. We have a co-leadership model, which is something we’ve shifted to. But I was working 80-, 90-hour weeks for a really long period of time. … I found myself in the ER.”
She visited urgent care many more times to deal with health issues before coming to the understanding that it was burnout. That was about two years ago.
“I was trying to treat it like a medical issue. In fact, it was burnout and fatigue from overwork,” she said. “Building a world where people have plenty to eat and where they have more equity and everybody can thrive, it’s my life’s work. And the fact that I was struggling to get out of bed in the morning to go to work because I was feeling so exhausted was a wake-up call for me. And once I knew what the signs were, I started to see it in my team.”
Metro Caring’s trial began Aug. 1. No one works on Fridays. Nearly one-third of the way into its 6-month pilot, Sienicki is hopeful. The company checks in frequently with the nearly three dozen employees, asking questions like, what’s been enjoyable or what’s been challenging?
“There was a ton of energy around what was enjoyable,” she said. “And people spoke about things that were super mundane, like people who live in an apartment (with) communal laundry who said they could do their laundry on a Friday and not have to spend hours waiting for their turn on a Saturday or Sunday. They were super thrilled about that.”
Some used their Fridays for appointments, or visited family or took a three-day weekend in the mountains. Others talked about just feeling more energized in general, and healthier. One woman color-coded her calendar with green, yellow, orange and red. The most productive meetings are green. Yellow means “just fine,” said Avigair D’Ambrosio, a community organizer who started as a volunteer in 2019, moved into part time and got hired full time last year.
“Orange is kind of like I don’t understand why we have this meeting, and red is we shouldn’t have a meeting. It’s low productivity,” D’Ambrosio said.
She’s found that with fewer working hours, she’s been able to prioritize better. In reviewing her week, she’ll often think about how to make “orange” meetings more purposeful, and plan all meetings out in advance. Or cut them down. “Having less time at those meetings allows us to get straight to the point,” she said.
There have been just two red meetings so far this month. She feels like she’s enjoying life more. Dinner conversations with her spouse aren’t dominated by her work and things she still needs to do. D’Ambrosio said that she’s already all in on this four-day workweek.
“I had never had a Friday off in my life,” she said.
The century-old trend
A shortened workweek dates back nearly a century with the passage of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The law set the maximum workweek in the U.S. at 44 hours, which was lowered to 40 hours two years later. Meanwhile, labor productivity has increased nearly annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For what it’s worth, U.S. workers in non-farm jobs worked an average of 34.4 hours per week in August, according to labor data. The number includes part-time work, work stoppages and turnover that could impact scheduled hours of work for a business.
While some companies in the modern era are trying to squeeze even more productivity out of their teams, the movement is very much at the national level. When the United Auto Workers went on strike last week, their push for a four-day workweek was not lost in the demand for a 40% pay raise over four years. There’s been legislation introduced in various states, and even a bill proposed in Congress earlier this year.
There are common reasons why companies try the shorter week, said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, global programs director for 4 Day Week Global.
Retention and recruitment are the big ones, especially after two years of prolific labor shortages and relatively low unemployment rates. The benefits of reducing employee turnover has a multiplier effect that can reduce costs elsewhere, such as less time and money spent on advertising job openings, recruitment and paying for underused benefits like mental health support or gym memberships.
Nobody has to spend a lot of money on IT infrastructure or redesigning the office or things like that. The main thing is to get better at the things they’re already doing.
— Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, global programs director for 4 Day Week Global
“I don’t want to sound like one of those commercials, like, ‘That one surprising trick that turns out to solve everything in your life.’ But basically giving people more time turns out to be a great way of addressing, if not completely eliminating, all of these issues at once,” Pang said. “And it’s also pretty cheap. Nobody has to spend a lot of money on IT infrastructure or redesigning the office or things like that. The main thing is to get better at the things they’re already doing. Think about how to make meetings shorter or how to use technology better, etc.”
Various studies have tackled distraction at work but it seems like much of the wasted time is anecdotal. A oft-cited 2014 Salary.com survey about wasting time at work found that 89% of respondents wasted at least 30 minutes a day while 26% wasted a quarter of their day. Pang blames overly long meetings and technology distractions.
“If you can get a handle on that stuff, you can actually go a long way to making a four-day week a reality,” he said.
His organization provides the support to get companies through the six-month pilot by providing mentors and guidance in redesigning the work day and work schedules. Some companies end up rewriting employment contracts and timesheets to fit a 32-hour week. Others use it like family leave, where as long as performance goals are met, four day weeks continue.
Not for everyone but …
Pang estimated that more than 90% of the companies that have gone through his company’s pilot program are still working a four-day week. The remaining companies cite a mixed bag of reasons for stopping.
Companies that rely on seasonal labor find it challenging. More frequently, it’s a new boss who kills the four-day week, he said, “like a new sheriff in town (and) this four-day week thing my predecessor did, that was the old regime.”
And this: “Every now and then, companies will fall short of their stated goals, which usually have to do with decreases in revenue that they feel makes continuing the trial unsustainable,” he said.
There’s also criticism that these programs benefit white collar workers more. Some economists also feel that productivity gain claims need more rigorous research and evidence, rather than have it based on perception.
In reviewing data collected from the ongoing 4-Day Week pilot, Boston College professors noted that job satisfaction after 12 months regressed slightly, though it was still higher than before. They concluded that satisfaction with life “may be more deeply embedded in individuals’ overall well-being than in job satisfaction alone.”
But perhaps it’s the idea behind the four-day workweek that creates the universal appeal: Get 100% of the work done in 80% of the time for 100% of the pay.
Integrity Pro Roofing, an 11-person construction company in Denver that also serves customers in Colorado Springs and along the I-70 to Silverthorne, isn’t your usual four-day workweek company. Few of the pilot participants are in construction.
“Every company in the pilot actually had a mentor that was able to talk them through their biggest challenges,” said Rae Boyce, Integrity’s director of operations. “As of 2022, we were the only roofing company in the world piloting a four-day week. We didn’t actually have a mentor in our industry.”
Construction work is also seasonal. A constant four-day workweek that was the same in the busy spring and summer to the dead of winter had to be revised. Integrity’s pilot evolved into more of a 32-hour workweek averaged out over the year. Crews who typically stop work in winter still got paid full time, but could take big chunks of time off during the less-busy season. Come construction season though, they made up for not working in the winter months by working five days again.
“We also had a lot of benchmarks along the way. We did a lot of surveys with our team to find out what they were doing with their extra time. Was it helpful for their mental health and things like that that are a little harder to measure in a binary way,” Boyce said. “We came out the other side and realized it hadn’t really affected our productivity. In a lot of ways, it actually increased our productivity and our efficiency.”
If workers felt most energetic and efficient in the morning, that morning time became a no-meeting zone so the employee could focus on their projects and tasks, she said.
The company has stuck with the four-day week. She recommends every business should at least explore the concept.
“Even to go through the pilot and decide not to implement it, it was so pivotal to our team to look at our day-to-day operations and figure out what is really moving the company forward versus what our time sucks and time wasters are,” she said. “Time is a very valuable resource, arguably, the most valuable resource we have.”