A four-day working week improves mental and physical health

Employees taking part in the world’s largest four-day week trial found that working one day fewer increased productivity, reduced burnout and increased wellbeing.

Studies have found that working more than 40 hours per week is associated with an increased risk of burnout symptoms, including emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.

Professor Brendan Burchell and Dr David Frayne from the University of Cambridge are leading a research project investigating the practical and equitable impact of a four-day working week. Through the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit), the researchers collaborated with a major trial of the four-day week in the UK.

After experiencing a four-day working week, employers found that anxiety and fatigue levels decreased across workforces while mental and physical health improved.

Of the 61 companies participating in the research, 56 said they are continuing with the four-day week (92%), with 18 confirming the policy is a permanent change.

Developing the trial

Brendan Burchell headshot

Professor Brendan Burchell, Professor in the Social Sciences, University of Cambridge and four-day week qualitative research lead. Credit: The Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit)

The UK trial ran between June and December 2022. It has been the largest four-day week trial to date and the first to include in-depth interview research. Professor Burchell, Dr Frayne and their team conducted the qualitative research. They worked with academics from Boston College in the United States, who led the quantitative research, plus think tank Autonomy, the not-for-profit community 4 Day Week Global and the UK’s 4 Day Week Campaign.

Companies across the UK took part, with around 2,900 employees dropping a day of work. Organisations involved in the trial ranged from online retailers and financial service providers to animation studios and a local fish and chip shop.

Other industries represented included consultancy, housing, information technology, skincare, recruitment, hospitality, marketing and healthcare.

In-depth interviews

While the four-day week campaign looked initially at quantitative statistics, Professor Burchell wanted to interview participants to discover the qualitative data on how the reduced week made them feel. He said:

A four-day working week is short-hand for a ‘20% reduction in working time’. Typically, this can be simply one day off a week, say Friday or Monday. It does not, however, include working longer days without a reduction in hours.

For example, working four 10-hour days in the USA is standard, but that would not be included in our trial. Yet working five shorter days would be included as there has to be a ‘meaningful’ reduction in working time.

Before the trial, many questioned whether we would see an increase in productivity to offset the reduction in working time – but this is exactly what we found.

Many employees were very keen to find efficiency gains themselves.

Preparation and initial results

The trial design involved two months of preparation for participants, with workshops and mentoring based on the experience of companies already on a shorter working week.

In addition to the survey work, the Cambridge team conducted in-depth interviews with employees and company chief executives before, during and after the six-month trial.

This qualitative research allowed the researchers to go beyond surveys and examine how the companies were making things work on the ground.

The initial results showed how companies turned the four-day week into a realistic policy with multiple benefits. Researchers surveyed employees throughout the trial to gauge the effects of having an extra day of free time. Self-reported levels of anxiety and fatigue decreased across workforces while mental and physical health improved.

Key findings and impact

Key findings and impact from the four-day week trial include:

  • of the 61 participating companies, 56 continue with the four-day week (92%), with 18 confirming the policy is a permanent change
  • some of the most extensive benefits of shorter working hours were found in employees’ wellbeing. ‘Before and after’ data shows that 39% of employees were less stressed, and 71% had reduced levels of burnout at the end of the trial
  • anxiety, fatigue and sleep issues decreased, while mental and physical health improved
  • measures of work-life balance also improved across the trial period. Employees found balancing their work with family and social commitments easier within a four-day week structure. Indeed, for 54%, a four-day week made juggling work with household jobs smoother
  • employees were more satisfied with their household finances, relationships, and how their time was being managed
  • a total of 60% of employees found an increased ability to combine paid work with care responsibilities, and 62% reported combining work with social life easier
  • the number of staff leaving participating companies decreased significantly, dropping by 57% over the trial period
  • for many, the positive effects of a four-day week were more than their monetary worth. 15% of employees said that no money would induce them to accept a five-day schedule over the four-day week

Contributing to public debate

The potential for future impact is great. The trial is already contributing to reshaping public debate.

Multiple media pieces appeared in publications, including:

  • the Financial Times
  • Business Insider
  • the BBC
  • TIME
  • Fortune
  • CBS and Associated Press
  • the Wall Street Journal
  • Sky News
  • viral online pieces

Media pieces appeared in many continents and languages.

The University of Cambridge website covering this press release had over 180,000 hits six weeks after the release date, one of the highest counts ever.

With this significant national and international press coverage, the trial is already contributing to reshaping public debate and thinking about how work-time reduction can improve work-life balance.

Next steps

ESRC supported the research team as part of the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit). The centre received an £8 million, five-year grant from ESRC in 2020 to investigate how digital technologies are changing work, including increased flexibility in how, when and where people work.

Of the next steps, Professor Burchell said:

We now need to go back and do a more careful academic study on the data we’ve got.

So far, this trial has been in the private sector, and now we’ve had lots of interest from the public sector, including the Welsh Government and some states in the USA.

Further information

Discover more about the UK’s largest four-day working week trial

Read more about ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work Research Centre

Find out more about 4 Day Week Global

Read about the UK’s 4 day week campaign

Top image:  Credit: UKRI, Adam Gasson

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