Can Finland’s 24-Hour Workweek *Really* Solve Our Burnout Problem?

Photo: Stocksy/Bonnin Studio
I have to imagine there are few nine-to-five workers out there who'd oppose having one fewer day in the office per week or two fewer hours in the office per day. In other words, most people probably find the idea of working less to be appealing, whether that looks like a four-day workweek or a six-hour workday. And Finland's newly appointed millennial prime minister Sanna Marin is aspiring to normalize both, simultaneously, Forbes reports.

In her ideal future, Finnish citizens will work 24-hour workweeks so as to be able to spend more time with their loved ones, on their hobbies, and immersed in culture. While theoretically, reallocating nearly 50 percent of working hours to more soul-nourishing pursuits may sound like the antidote to widespread burnout plaguing some populations these days, in practice, would it actually help workers decompress and disconnect? Or would it more likely make little difference in a world where work follows you everywhere and diminished hours on the clock wouldn't necessarily equate to a lightened up to-do list?

It's complicated: Why reduced hours are so tricky to implement

"My guess is the [prime minister's] thought pertains to workers who have to be at a particular location for a certain amount of time, like manufacturing, or the work is not getting done," says Jeffrey Stanton, PhD, a data scientist who focuses on job satisfaction and workplace stress. If it is the case—that only those who work in these types of roles would benefit from implementing Finland's six-hour day, four-day workweek—Dr. Stanton believes the policy wouldn't benefit the majority of people. "It seems less applicable now because for many people, work follows them everywhere," he says.

Paula Davis-Laack, founder and CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute, which seeks to provide burnout-reducing solutions to companies, agrees that whether or not a policy like this would have any effect on combatting symptoms of burnout depends on the nature of the organization implementing it. "I think it can work if you have a culture that truly supports it—where it is a core value and you have people at high levels of the organization setting the expectation that they truly want you to be working six hours a day, four days a week," she says.

The problem? Companies are often not wired to support such a shift. Davis-Laack says she regularly hears from people who work on a reduced schedule complaining of "creep," wherein they're supposed to, for example, be off on Fridays and yet they end up working anyway. "It's hard—people want to do good work and be seen as a team player," she says, adding that accomplishing this often requires working hours that don't fit into a reduced schedule. Similarly, Dr. Stanton points out that since it's difficult to get Americans, specifically, to take the vacation they're allotted, it might not even be possible to get such massive scale of workforce to adopt a "pencils down" mentality and call it quits on work after a certain number of of hours.

If companies can support the four-day workweek, though, its burnout-busting potential is strong

But let's say it is possible, and a company is able to make the reduced hours stick. Research contends that employees on condensed work schedules are more productive and, therefore, happier—even when the workload isn't reduced: For two months in 2018, a New Zealand real-estate firm tested out a 32-hour workweek and found that the shift boosted productivity and left workers feeling more balanced and less stressed.

Productivity and stress are not often found alongside one another, and when the former increases, the latter naturally decreases, says workplace-productivity expert Amanda Chay.

Amanda Chay, founder of Wonderment, a company that aims to help employers promote balance in their employees' lives, says these results are unsurprising. Productivity and stress are not often found alongside one another, she says, and when the former increases, the latter naturally decreases. "It's not like, 'I now have only 24 hours in a week to complete things versus 40, so I'm going to be so much more stressed'," she says. "That's because when people are more productive, that means that they have to be less stressed, as those two—stress and productivity—are not best friends."

Dr. Stanton says when looking back further than contemporary history, there's even greater precedence supporting the shorter four-day workweek. "The 40-hour workweek is a relatively newish phenomenon, and one of the things that’s striking is that as nations started to adopt this shorter workweek, productivity increased and GDP increased," he says. (People used to work 80-hour workweeks, BTW, so once upon a time, the 40-hour workweek is what constituted shorter hours.)  If what Chay suggests is true—that productivity and stress are conversely related—then the conclusion that workers suffered less burnout with this change is a fair one.

Does flex time have more burnout-solving potential than reduced hours?

If, however, trimmed office hours simply means more time toiling on work in your own time, the benefits of a four-day workweek might end up being no different or better than those that result from flex time—being able to work when it's convenient to your schedule—which the American Bureau of Labor Statistics has noted to be a growing trend. With both flex time and shorter workweeks, autonomy is the key to reducing burnout more so than workload or reduced hours.

"Job resources do a lot in terms of slowing down, reducing, and alleviating burnout. Autonomy is one of the most important job resources." —Paula Davis-Laack, CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute

"According to the research, job resources—things that are motivational or energy-giving about your work—do a whole lot in terms of slowing down, reducing, and alleviating burnout," Davis-Laack says. "Autonomy is one of the biggest and most important job resources that exist."

So, rather than trying to change the widely accepted employment structure to a shorter four-day workweek (no matter how appealing it sounds), it may make more sense for employers to zero in on strategies for fostering employee autonomy. Because even if a company does adopt a policy of shortened working hours, employees may not be ready to accept it and actually work less. "If you look at the official policies of hundreds of countries across the world, 40 hours really is a massive standard," Dr. Stanton says. "It’s almost like there’s this inertia around sticking with the 40-hour workweek that’s going to be hard to overcome." So for now, the workaround might not be working less, but working flexibly.

Wishing the days you spend at your current job could be decreased by 100 percent? Find out how to completely switch careers at any stage in your journey. Oh, and here's how to find a job that actually loves you back.

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