The four-day work week: Work-life balance and the pursuit of the ‘sweet spot’ 

In this blog, enei Diversity and Inclusion Lead Hugh O'Keeffe explores the ‘four-day work week’ and opportunities for employers and employees alike to open the dialogue in favour of getting the balance right. Hugh views the ongoing discussion through a personal lens of his own support needs, expanding our workplace flexibility beyond legal requirements.

Alt text: Several flavours of ice cream displayed in a freezer case.
Several flavours of ice cream displayed in a freezer case. Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash.

Life as Neapolitan ice cream 

In looking back through history, we find the origins of the weekend rooted in a push for balance around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Our quest for a harmonious blend of work and play remains just as relevant today. Picture life as a Neapolitan ice cream, with work, rest, and play being the chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry layers. 

An overindulgence in work, akin to too much chocolate, leaves a bitter taste. The relentless grind of mental and physical overexertion gnaws away at our free time, triggers discomfort, and depletes our spirits, drawing us further from peak performance. This imbalance sparks a longing for vanilla – the soothing respite of rest. 

A reimagined work week 

It’s time to shift our view of rest, no longer seeing it as a luxury but recognising it as an integral component of our work rhythm. The ‘seventh day’ is more than just a break. It’s a crucial opportunity for rejuvenation and a recharging of our mental and physical batteries. 

Physically, I tire very easily. I have a mild form of muscular dystrophy that makes me susceptible to overexertion and increases the time I need to recover from any prolonged or intense physical activity. Pushing myself too much and ignoring my body’s signals for balance can increase the rate that my muscles degenerate. As well as fatigue, this can cause me a great deal of stress and anxiety. As the condition is progressive, soon after I have adjusted to a shift in my ability, the goal posts usually change. I need flexibility and understanding, first and foremost from my myself but also from those around me. 

In turn, a lack of flexibility and a push to overexert compounds the effects of physical stress on my muscles and can quicken the loss of muscle mass caused by the condition. For me, the imperative to rest is immediate and obvious but no more important than the balance necessary for mental and physical wellness in all of us. 

In discussing the four-day work week, we must separate it from the concept of a ‘reasonable adjustment’. Unlike adjustments made for individuals with health conditions or disabilities, the four-day work week is a structural shift designed to benefit everyone, bolstering work-life balance and productivity. 

For me, the imperative to rest is immediate and obvious but no more important than the balance necessary for mental and physical wellness in all of us. 

Hugh O’Keeffe, enei Diversity and Inclusion Lead

In future, I’m likely to require reasonable adjustments to allow me to engage fully with my job, and though the legal duty for my employer to provide these is distinct from flexible or reduced working hours, the positive impact that these adjustments can have for disabled people is testament to the power of meeting employees where they are and supporting their needs. 

Additionally, the shift to a four-day work week could serve as a lifeline for parents and those with caring responsibilities, offering them much needed flexibility to manage their roles without feeling overwhelmed. It’s like adding a dollop of strawberry to our Neapolitan mix, achieving a more satisfying balance. 

According to the 2023 study from 4 Day Week Global, the case for a four-day work week presents compelling business advantages, including increased productivity, lower staff turnover, reduced employee burnout, and heightened employee satisfaction. For managers, this shift opens up a wealth of benefits, including a happier, more engaged team and potential cost savings. 

Crucially, what’s right for some may not be right for others. It is the open conversations with employees and flexibility that make all the difference. The empowerment is in giving people a choice and space for them to discover what patterns work best for them.

For some organisations, a four-day work week won’t be the silver bullet in the fight for employee wellbeing. The correlation between a reduced workload and a reduction in stress is a no brainer, but importantly a reduced working week doesn’t necessarily mean a reduced workload. Specifically, where a move to a four-day work week is poorly planned or ultimately not right for a given organisation, the existing pressure placed on employees may be compounded. 

Opening the dialogue 

The conversation around a four-day work week may seem challenging to initiate, but it begins with understanding and sharing the mutual benefits. Managers can present the compelling business case to senior leaders, while employees can voice their need for a better work-life balance and increased productivity. 

As we conclude, let’s reflect on how this conversation can progress in the workplace. Organisations keen to explore the potential of a four-day work week might start with open discussions, perhaps even workshops or brainstorming sessions, to collectively explore the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of its implementation. Feedback can be gathered to understand the specific needs of the workforce better and to shape a customised approach that would best suit the organisation’s unique context. 

Remember, rest is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, and a four-day work week might be the ticket to a healthier, more productive, and balanced work-life blend. It’s an exciting new flavour of work-life harmony worth considering. Are we ready to open the dialogue? 

This blog post was written by Hugh O’Keeffe, enei Diversity and Inclusion Lead. It was originally posted on 7 August 2023.  

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