European Workers Want a Four-Day Week

Two road signs read fiveday week and fourday week

Desire for a four-day work week among European workers stems from a number of factors, including work-life balance and unpaid overtime.

Summer all year, Kool-Aid out of the water fountains, and a three-day weekend every time — you may recall these schoolyard fantasies and perhaps even remember when you realized they would never come to pass. But as productivity has increased over the last few decades, the prospect of a four-day work week has become more serious.

According to new research from ADP, support for the idea has reached a tipping point in the European Union, where a majority of workers now say they support it as a national goal. That's a key finding from ADP's Workforce View in Europe 2019 report, which shows not only that EU workers have a desire for shorter work weeks, but also that their weeks right now may be too long.

"There's a disequilibrium between what workers and employers perceive as good for productivity," says Don McGuire, President of Employer Services International at ADP. "And the data shows that this gap is widening."

The Four-Day Work Week Is Popular (When Pay Remains Static)

When asked whether they wanted a four-day work week, 56% of survey respondents said they did. Perhaps even more striking is the fact that when respondents were asked whether they would like to work four longer days for the same salary, 78% said they would.

The results are broken down by age, and it's the middle age group that most supports the four-day schedule.

"These workers tend to have the most to juggle in life," says McGuire. "From the stresses of a young family to the obligations of aging parents, this is the period of life in which workers seem to most need a few extra hours in the day."

However, the data also shows that most EU workers face another pressing issue: 60% of ADP's survey respondents said they regularly work unpaid overtime, which turns a five-day work week into a five-plus-day week. Why would workers put up with this indefinitely?

Regularly Overworking Workers is Regularly Underpaying Workers

We all have to make sacrifices, and workers know that the long-term health of their organization naturally translates to the long-term health of their employment. Many EU workers find that their hours are longer than their salaries reflect, and ADP quantifies the gap at an average of 4 hours and 47 minutes of overtime per week. Employers should expect a reaction to this situation in the form of evolving worker attitudes.

We see over and over that companies get out of their workforce what they put into it. Workers who feel they are having their time taken unnecessarily are more willing to give themselves permission to recoup that perceived loss through their own inefficiency down the road.

- Don McGuire, President, Employer Services International at ADP

Often, HR can find ways to reduce this ongoing time-bloat by helping to reduce inefficiency, rather than by increasing the size of the workforce. Dissatisfied workers can produce less value for all the hours they work, so whenever possible, HR should see if there is downtime that could be eliminated to fit more productive hours into the regular salaried work schedule.

Dissatisfied workers are generally larger risks to leave, and the time and costs of retraining their replacements can easily outweigh any savings on their base salaries.

More Hours Don't Equal More Productivity

The same study found that while European workers are working consistently longer during the week, they don't necessarily create any additional productivity as a result. While global productivity has grown in the long term, over the past few years, productivity among European workers has stagnated, even as workers continue putting in long, partially unpaid hours.

It's common sense that, as workers become more fatigued during the day (and the week), their focus and efficacy can diminish as a result.

"We see over and over that companies get out of their workforce what they put into it," says McGuire. "Workers who feel they are having their time taken unnecessarily are more willing to give themselves permission to recoup that perceived loss through their own inefficiency down the road."

HR needs to intervene to support workers who believe their time is being stolen, or else their organization may suffer decreased productivity and increased turnover. The four-day work week isn't necessarily the only answer, but EU workers are increasingly considering whether it might work for them. At the same time, employers are looking into whether they could grant this without a major downturn in output.

Whether or not Europe sees a change in the length of the work week, the amount of support for such a change shows worker dissatisfaction with the status quo. Organizations that address this dissatisfaction may find that their workforce has higher productivity and lower turnover compared to their competitors.

And with these advantages realized, they might even find that Fridays aren't so necessary.