Commentary: Why a five-hour work day is a double-edged sword
Shorter working hours can boost productivity and offer a healthier work-life balance, but it's not for everyone, say three organisational behaviour experts.
SINGAPORE: Discussion about shorter working hours has re-emerged thanks to a recent story about an Australian financial advice firm which trialled a five-hour work day.
In Sweden, the city of Gothenburg experimented with six-hour work days among nurses in an aged care facility. Although the nurses took less sick leave and showed increased productivity, the city council eventually ended the experiment as the costs outweighed the benefits.
Despite the productivity gains, the facility had to hire more nurses to make up for the lost hours, which became too expensive for the small city to bear.
There is no doubt working excessive hours makes people less productive and takes a toll on their health and personal lives, but could a five-hour work day be the solution to some deep-seated workplace issues such as workaholism, long working hours and presenteeism?
First, let's explore some of the potential benefits of a five-hour work day.
FLEXIBILITY, FREEDOM AND BOOST IN PRODUCTIVITY
Working fewer hours means that more hours are available for employees to focus on their personal priorities. We all lead busy lives outside work. Family is important to us.
Working adults can spend more time with their children and elderly parents. Pet lovers also value the time spent with their treasured companions.
At home, hours can be filled with duties such as doing household chores and maintaining the garden. Fitness fanatics can also visit the gym more frequently.
Nurses in Sweden who went from working eight to six hours a day felt that reduced hours boosted their productivity as they organised more activities for their patients and provided better quality care. They also felt healthier and happier, making them more focused and productive at work.
Multiple studies have consistently shown that the more hours people worked, the more their productivity declined. Reduced work hours also encouraged employees to prioritise job tasks over non-work-related matters, avoiding the scourge of presenteeism at work.
Another advantage of a shorter work day is the opportunity for exploring hobbies, activities and pursuits beyond the workplace that give a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging.
Some employees volunteer for not-for-profit organisations, sharing their professional expertise and free labour to advance cherished causes. Others participate in community groups like Boy Scouts or Girl Guides.
These activities build skills and connections that enhance performance on the job. Higher performance subsequently fosters a sense of job and career satisfaction for employees.
NOT FOR EVERYONE
However, the five-hour work day is unlikely to benefit all employees or all job types.
A study conducted on South Korea’s Five-Day Working Reform found that reduced working hours did not increase job and life satisfaction. Instead, the reduced hours made employees stressed because their work had intensified.
Another disadvantage of a five-hour work day is finding the right job arrangement. Some job roles, such as a consultant or customer service representative, are client-facing, meaning employees must be available during business hours when customers expect to receive service.
These employees do not have autonomy to shape their work arrangements to work fewer hours. Employees, like knowledge workers, are more suited for shorter work days, as their work is typically technologically-enhanced, flexible and portable.
A five-hour work day is unlikely to leave much time for interaction, brainstorming, discussions and lunch or coffee breaks. Consequently, workplace camaraderie may suffer, reducing productivity and project progress.
In industries such as advertising and tech start-ups which thrive on creativity and collaboration, the added pressure from a reduced work day is likely to stifle and disrupt innovation.
Further, work–family researchers have found that working long hours is not necessarily bad for health. Rather, a compulsive work mentality - workaholism - gives rise to depression, sleep problems and difficulties in recovering from work exertions, impairing employees’ physical health.
The negative effects were particularly pronounced for employees who did not love their jobs.
Even with reduced work days, employees who have a hard time “switching off” from their jobs will be stressed, frustrated and anxious, as they constantly think about their jobs after hours.
REMAINING FLEXIBLE AND OPEN TO CHANGES IS KEY
The five-hour work day is an exciting promise, but it’s clearly not for everyone. It offers a great way for employees to balance work, home, community and leisure pursuits. But workers and their employers need to consider the nature of the work, individual personality preferences and national culture.
If the job role is flexible and portable, one solution could be that employees are allowed to work any number of hours each day so long as they complete their tasks.
We believe it’s more important for organisations to be open to changes and to help their employees find the right balance, rather than instituting a strict five-hour work day or nine-to-five rule.
Employees should also speak up if their workload isn’t working for them, and hopefully both employees and organisations will adapt to meet each other's needs.
Carys Chan is Assistant Professor in Management at RMIT University. Justin Field is Principal Organisational Development Consultant at Oracle and Adjunct Lecturer in Strategic Human Resource Management at the University of New England. David Cheng is Assistant Professor in Leadership at the Australian National University.