A Four-Day-Workweek? May Well Become a Reality


Engineering psychologist Professor Verena Nitsch on the four-day workweek and how our work life may look in the future

Professor Verena Nitsch heads the Institute of Industrial Engineering and Ergonomics at RWTH Aachen University. We talked to her about the four-day week, people-oriented work conditions, and the question of the meaningfulness of work for the younger generation.

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Career and success: are these still significant terms in relation to work nowadays?

Prof. Nitsch: "Career" and "success" will always be an integral part of our vocabulary. Success motivates us and that will remain important in the future. We know that career opportunities, or at least opportunities for further development in the workplace, are also important motivators for us. Without them, it becomes more difficult to create meaning solely based on the job tasks themselves. Career also doesn't have to mean just aiming for promotions or taking on more and more responsibility. Career development can also mean simply taking on different task areas. This can also be very motivating and promote overall job satisfaction.

What actually motivates employees? Is today's working world even people-oriented in any way?

Prof. Nitsch: The world of work has never actually been people-oriented. Work has never been focused on people, rather has always concentrated on productivity goals, that is, on getting certain tasks done faster, better, and with fewer resources. Productivity is still important in the economic system in which we work, of course, but decades ago, meaningfulness or the perceived importance of a task was considered a motivator. What has changed, however, is that we currently have a strong employee-driven market. We not only have a shortage of skilled workers, but a shortage of workers in many professions, so companies have to think about how they can make the workplace as attractive as possible so that staff members don't leave for the competition, where they might have more free time, less responsibility, and a higher salary. All in all, there are many ways to make work attractive, and motivation is a very important factor.

What other options are there besides those already mentioned and what do companies have to keep in mind when recruiting nowadays?

Prof. Nitsch: Employee satisfaction is, of course, determined by different factors in different occupational groups. But income satisfaction and security are still significant motivators – money has not suddenly become unimportant. Relationships with supervisors and colleagues also play a substantial role, however. The scope for companies to influence this is limited, of course, but it is important to be aware that not only work hours and salary but also the social fabric make up the framework conditions.

Is income always about absolute salary?

Prof. Nitsch: No. It's more about the comparison with others in my field. So even though I may be earning a lot, if others around me make even more, I will be dissatisfied with my income. Incidentally, social relationships are also based on how fair people think decisions are; if they can understand what is behind them, they will be more satisfied in their jobs.

Are there particular factors that recruiters can work with? Being the cool supervisor may help retain employees, but doesn't help attract them.

Prof. Nitsch: There is no golden formula. Of course, it helps to take a close look at why staff quit. But it also helps to simply ask employees about their job satisfaction and motivation in order to create the most appealing working conditions possible and to be able to advertise them on the market. In addition, you also have to ask yourself: What do we do differently than the competition, why should people come to us? Things that young employees in particular are looking for are flexibility when it comes to work hours and location, insofar as this is possible in the respective area of work.

There's been a lot of talk about New Work – what does this term mean for you?

Prof. Nitsch: The term "New Work" was coined back in the 1970s and 1980s. The idea behind it was that digital technologies were constantly creating new freedom for us and the expectation was that people would, therefore, have more time to develop creatively or to perform a service for society. If we look at how work has changed as a result of digitalization today, we know that technology has neither led to more free time, nor freedom nor slowing down, rather the opposite is the case. We have more and more workload compression and more and more acceleration in the workplace. However, it is up to us to make the concept of New Work a reality. Companies can create framework conditions, they can use technologies not only to increase effectiveness but also to slow down work, to create freedom and opportunities for decision-making.

If past hopes for changing the world of work have not been fulfilled, do new developments such as those in the field of artificial intelligence have better chances now?

Prof. Nitsch: If increased work hours also go hand in hand with more value creation, companies naturally have little incentive to use technology in a way that results in people working less and thus generating less for the company. Legal requirements would have to regulate this, similar to the introduction of the five-day workweek around 60 years ago. If such decisions are left to market principles alone, there are often few incentives for employers. What we can already see is that occupational health and safety are playing an increasingly important role, and companies are trying to create conditions to promote employees’ health and well-being as much as possible. This is also a factor that can contribute to a more appealing workplace.

There has been much talk about the four-day workweek recently. Is this also a way employers can become more appealing?

Prof. Nitsch: The four-day workweek is not a new concept either; trials ran at companies worldwide back in the 1970s, recording positive effects on satisfaction, motivation, and health. The difficult question concerning the four-day week is how to structure it. One option is to simply work reduced hours, i.e. 32 instead of 40, but another is to work ten hours on four workdays. In the latter case, however, we know from studies that longer workdays not only increase the likelihood of making mistakes but also have negative effects on health. So the blanket statement of “we'll introduce the four-day workweek and people will be healthier” isn't realistic. Companies often lack the know-how to create conditions that promote employee health.

A few weeks ago, a British study on the four-day workweek attracted much attention. According to this study, employers and employees alike were happy with the model.

Prof. Nitsch: If you take a closer look at the existing studies, you can see that the positive effects were mostly emphasized in a rather one-sided way. This is because the opposite aspects have also been reported. For example, in some cases, the intensity and complexity of work increased with stress levels rising. We always need to consider the whole picture. It is quite difficult to deduce clear policy recommendations from such studies. However, as already mentioned, the model varies from company to company and the studies always consider a comparatively short period of time, usually six months or a maximum of one year. The few studies that have observed an extended time period indicate that satisfaction tends to settle back to the level before the introduction of the four-day week. Further, since participation in such studies is voluntary, companies that can afford it and that already have positive expectations of the effects participate in them. This implies that the positive effects will also be looked at more closely afterward and that these will be the main ones reported.

Does that mean that we don't have any appropriate studies at present?

Prof. Nitsch: Exactly. There is a lack of comprehensive studies conducted over extended periods of time. These studies would then also include companies that do not necessarily expect positive effects and do not assess the model positively from the outset. And also from different sectors, not just from the IT industry or certain service sectors, but across a wide range.

So what would you recommend?

Prof. Nitsch: To investigate the effects even better. We need more trials, more companies involved, and more diverse areas. Only then can we reliably determine how such a regulation can be implemented.

Does it perhaps also simply take more courage to think of work differently or in a new way?

Prof. Nitsch: That depends on the goals with which the world of work is to be designed. If it were just a matter of making work more people-oriented – which, as an engineering psychologist, I would of course be very much in favor of – then we would indeed have to think of work in a completely different way. Sitting in front of a computer all day long or standing at an assembly line is just as inhumane as sitting in an office by yourself and only communicating via email. New work concepts would have to be devised, which would then of course also have to be compatible with economic efficiency.

Are such work models already a reality?

Prof. Nitsch: Many companies, especially young startups, are already trying different things out, reducing work hours or giving their employees a lot of freedom. However, this mainly concerns industries in which a lot of knowledge work is done and a lot of work revolves around data. People are then simply freer to determine their work hours and locations. However, such concepts are not so easy to transfer to skilled trades or other business areas. There is still a lack of good ideas and concepts and, of course, of companies that are brave enough to take such paths without knowing how it will ultimately affect their economic goals.

Does this also harbor the potential for conflict if some areas are more likely to bring about changes than others?

Prof. Nitsch: It would be dangerous for us to treat staff very differently only on the basis of technical availability and the possibility of organizing work differently. For example, we have talked a lot about working from home in recent months and years and the advantages and disadvantages of this model, but we must not forget that many work areas cannot even take advantage of these benefits because their work does not allow it. We can apply a similar thought process to the four-day workweek. In companies where such a model is not possible, for example, because there is simply a lack of employees, this can lead to feelings of unfair treatment, dissatisfaction, and resentment.

You’ve mentioned labor shortages. Given this context, isn't talk about a four-day week totally absurd?

Prof. Nitsch: Not necessarily. The labor shortage is also fueled by illness among the workforce and especially those illnesses that can be traced back to psychological stress – burn-out, depression – have risen sharply in recent years and decades. If more health-promoting conditions were created in the workplace, this could reduce sick leave and make more people available at work. This would in turn create the opportunity to reduce work hours overall.

Is there any hope for the four-day workweek?

Prof. Nitsch: If you look at how work hours have developed over time, we can see a clear trend toward less work. It used to be widely accepted that the workweek was six days. Then, when the five-day week was introduced, there were fears that it wouldn't suffice. But it did – companies and staff can adapt. In the same way, we can see that a four-day workweek introduced across the board could not only be widely accepted but also that work could be performed just as economically or even more effectively than before. It will depend very much on how the work is designed. How long will the workdays be? Can we choose which days to work? How can work conditions be ideally harmonized with one’s personal life? More free time can also mean more stress.

Has job satisfaction/occupational health become more important?

Prof. Nitsch: In my opinion, we now have a greater awareness that psychological stress, in particular, is a major problem. For a long time, the focus was on physiological stress, and workplaces were optimized to reduce this form of stress. Nowadays, we know that psychological stress is not something that employees have to deal with exclusively in their personal lives, but that it is also the responsibility of companies to evaluate and reduce psychological hazards in the workplace – which, by the way, is also mandated by law. This awareness is very present in companies, precisely because so many people are currently falling ill.

What role does the question of the meaningfulness of work play?

Prof. Nitsch: The meaningfulness of work has been an important motivator for decades. We can see, especially with Generation Z, i.e. those who are now a maximum of 27 years old and are new to the job market, they define meaningfulness in terms of ecological meaningfulness, ecological justice, and also social sustainability. Of course, the older generation also feels committed to these issues, but the older you get, the more you have to fulfill other obligations, such as family obligations, so income becomes more important. Priorities change according to one's stage of life.

What does the ideal work environment look like to you?

Prof. Nitsch: The key to designing a good work environment is to talk to employees, and to involve them. Another positive trend is creating more opportunities for individualizing work. Employees can increasingly determine their work hours and locations, they can change the content of their work, and they can develop their careers. There is no longer necessarily one predefined career path, as was the case some time ago. You have more opportunities to develop and grow – and also more opportunities to choose your employer. We're already going in a good direction. What we still have to think about completely differently is computer and office work. There are still no good concepts and, above all, no well-studied concepts that show how employees can work not only productively, but also healthily and happily.

Is it just our perception or are we currently experiencing a turning point in working life?

Prof. Nitsch: I see it as more of a continuous development. As I mentioned, the four-day week and New Work are old ideas; in the 1980s, we called remote work “telecommuting”. These ideas have not disappeared, but rather have evolved over time. Combined with technological and social developments, this is moving in a direction that is beneficial for us as people – and hopefully also for the environment.