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Is a Four-Day Work Week the Way To Go?

Singaporeans work some of the longest hours in the world. In fact, we had the highest hours in 2016, clocking in at a whopping 2,371.2 work hours per average worker, and ranked as the second most overworked city in a study of 40 global cities in 2019[1]. Clearly, our nation has still some work to do in order to attain work-life balance for its citizens. 

To address this problem, some Members of Parliament have floated the idea of establishing a four-day work week. This solution is already a hot topic in many places, and progressive countries such as Finland and New Zealand are considering implementing it[2]. And it does appear to have a track record of success. Take Microsoft Japan as an example. While implementing the four-day work week, they saw productivity rise by an amazing 40 percent, while electricity costs simultaneously fell by 23 percent[3]. New Zealand firm Perpetual Guardian followed suit, lowering staff stress levels by 7 percent. They also oversaw an increase from a pre-trial 54 percent to 78 percent of staff who said that they could manage work-life balance. All without dropping work performance levels. All with team engagement levels rising instead[4].

While a four-day work week comes with several benefits and sounds viable in theory, the actual implementation is far from a straightforward task. It will require a monumental shift away from dominant work cultures, traditions and mindsets that we are used to. Not to mention a whole lot of legislation and issues to contend with such as ensuring that there should be no loss of pay, for example. Now it is up to us to determine if the upsides triumph over the challenges.

The Potential

A simple and straightforward advantage would be the improved quality of life. Working long hours leads us to being mentally occupied with work most of the time, perhaps neglecting those who need our attention in the process. Also, people who work long hours are actually more prone to sickness - both physically and mentally. With fewer work hours comes more freedom to have and live a life outside of work, to improve our health and well-being.

We will have more dedicated time for quality moments with family and friends, running errands, personal development, or even just to exercise or sleep in. And this new-found flexibility has the power to lead to happier and healthier individuals, and naturally, better employees. This work-life balance attainment fosters good morale and can have a positive effect on staff retention.

And this is not the only workplace benefit. Reducing work hours can also perhaps be viewed as an exercise in enhancing work quality. For example, a four-day work week would call for greater efficiency and productivity owing to the shorter work hours, and can result in employers and employees cutting out time-wasting processes such as long meetings.

Both employers and employees save on costs as well. Companies save on the utilities by having less operating costs owing to the shortened working hours. As for the employees, they get to save on travelling and transportation costs. These are small gains that have the power to make substantial differences when we look at the bigger picture. A four-day work week ultimately means that large buildings are only in use four days a week, and that fewer cars are on the road. All these lead to a lower carbon footprint.

Additionally, a four-day work week can provide a welcome boost to domestic tourism, something the Singaporean government is attempting to encourage, with travelling still restricted as a result of the pandemic. The extra time off from work could be spent experiencing the local attractions, facilitating spending that would help the tourism sector. If anything, it would definitely dovetail well with the $100 digital SingapoRediscovers vouchers that the government is issuing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic[5]

The Problems

However, it must also be acknowledged that a four-day work week is far from a perfect solution. It could easily backfire. What if your conservative employer does not follow suit? What happens if a company’s clients and vendors do not follow these guidelines? After all, to make this solution a success, it takes two hands to clap. Should deadlines not be shifted to accommodate this new practice, they only become tighter and cause employees to end up working more hours a day in order to meet them. Not to mention the added stress and pressure. This has the adverse effect of making each day tougher and causing people to be more prone to burnout.

And for some, it is but an impossible task.

For individuals in the financial sector, where clients demand access to their wealth managers at all times, such a practice is unfeasible. Failure to adhere to the demands of the clients would simply result in them taking their business elsewhere. As for those in sales jobs, would less working hours translate to less commission, and ultimately affect the bottom line?

Elsewhere, emergency workers such as paramedics, police officers and firefighters will find it impossible to follow a four-day work schedule owing to the nature of their jobs, especially in times of crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. Simply put, when lives are at stake, not showing up for work just because it is not your shift does not quite cut it.

Also, how would we really feel should we not be able to access government services or offices on a Friday due to the new work arrangement? 

The Perspective

While the thought of a four-day work week obviously sounds irresistible, it must be said that it comes with its own unique set of challenges and is definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution. It is also worth mentioning that the same was once thought of capitalism, that it would gradually develop in ways that would deliver shorter working hours.

As seen during the pandemic, Singaporeans are very much open to new ways to work. For example, according to data collected by human resources tech firm EngageRocket, a staggering 72 percent of workers out of 2,600 surveyed are keen to continue working from home for at least 50 percent of the time[6].

While a four-day work week might be too much of a stretch for now, the solution perhaps lies somewhere in between. We can start by implementing a four-day work week with the option of working from home on the fifth day instead, or a flexi-hours work model. 

As Singapore prepares for a post-COVID-19 world, the nation should perhaps take this chance to leave its workaholic culture behind, and instead embrace new potential modes of work. After all, we should work to live rather than live to work.

[1] TODAY (AUG 2019) Singapore ranks 32 out of 40 for work-life balance, second most overworked city

[2] Straits Times (JUN 2020) Parliament: 4-day work week among ideas to improve work-life balance here

[3] Forbes (FEB 2020) The 4-Day Workweek: Has Its Time Come?

[4] CNBC (JUL 2018) New Zealand experiment finds 4-day work week a success

[5] Singapore Tourism Board Factsheet: SingapoRediscovers and Expanded Attractions Guidelines

[6] TODAY (SEP 2020) Work in office, from home, or both? Hybrid work has potential and pitfalls, say experts


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