New health study strengthens case for a four-day workweek

A four-day workweek has the potential to improve employees' health and sleep, a new study finds

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 14, 2023 6:42PM (EDT)

Stressed woman working in office. (Getty Images/Jessica Peterson)
Stressed woman working in office. (Getty Images/Jessica Peterson)

While most Westerners take it as gospel that full-time work means working a five-day workweek, many labor groups, progressive businesses, and even governments are touting (and even testing) the viability of a four-day work week. Indeed, there are many well-studied benefits to only being required to work for four days instead of five, including improved employee mental health (without loss in productivity) and increased opportunities for personal productivity.

Now, a new study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity reveals that there is another significant benefit to having more time off from work: Employees are healthier physically, as a result of being more likely to be physically active during their days spent not working. The authors extrapolate from this data conclusions about what would happen if four-day work weeks became more common.

People were five percent less sedentary for each additional day they took off from work — which amounts to being 29 minutes less sedentary each day.

"This study provides empirical evidence that people have healthier lifestyle patterns when they have a short break, such as a three-day weekend," explained a study co-author, University of South Australia researcher Dr. Carol Maher, in a statement. "This increase in physical activity and sleep is expected to have positive effects on both mental and physical health, contributing to the benefits observed with a four-day work week."

The study also found that a three-day weekend improves sleep for workers. 

"Even after a short holiday, people's increased sleep remained elevated for two weeks, showing that the health benefits of a three-day break can have lasting effects beyond the holiday itself," Maher continued.

Using information collected from 308 adults in Australia and New Zealand using a fitness tracker (Fitbit Charge 3), the researchers found that people were five percent less sedentary for each additional day they took off from work during vacations — which amounts to being 29 minutes less sedentary each day. They similarly engaged in roughly 13 percent more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for every additional day (amounting to five minutes more) and slept four percent more each day (amounting to 21 minutes or more).

"When people go on holiday, they're changing their everyday responsibilities because they're not locked down to their normal schedule," University of South Australia researcher Dr. Ty Ferguson, a co-author of the paper, said in a statement. "In this study, we found that movement patterns changed for the better when on holiday, with increased physical activity and decreased sedentary behaviour observed across the board."

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These are not the first studies to reveal that longer weekends might be better for us. In fact, unless one's work environment is both physically and mentally stimulating, research indicates that spending too much time there is generally bad for your health. A February study released by the University of Cambridge found that companies which reduced their work weeks from five days to four had employees with 71% less "burnout" and 39% less "stress," while requests for sick days dropped by almost two-thirds. Just as notably, the University of Cambridge study found that there was a 1.4% increase in revenues among companies that had a four-day work week, meaning that the loss of that fifth day not only didn't hurt productivity, but actually helped it.

Four-day work weeks are also good for the environment, studies have found. In a 2013 study for the Center for Economic and Policy Research — a liberal-leaning think tank whose contributors include Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winners Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz — it was determined that if the United States adopted a less time-intensive weekly work model, it could through that alone take a large bite out of the greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change.

"For all practical purposes, some amount of climate change is inevitable," the authors wrote as a caveat, before noting that if major policymakers and business leaders chose "a more European response to productivity gains rather than following a model more like that of the United States," this would on its own make a big difference. "By itself, a combination of shorter workweeks and additional vacation which reduces average annual hours by just 0.5 percent per year would very likely mitigate one-quarter to one-half, if not more, of any warming which is not yet locked-in."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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