Three UAW On Strike picket signs stacked on top of each other on the grass. The topmost sign has blue text, and the one underneath it is in green. Both say "UAW ON STRIKE."
(Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
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Thousands of auto workers are on strike over pay raises, healthcare and pension benefits. It’s the most aggressive move by the United Auto Workers in modern history, targeting Detroit’s biggest car makers all at once.  

Yet none of the union’s demands has grabbed more attention than its call for a four-day workweek. UAW wants the Big Three carmakers to let full-time employees work 32 hours instead of 40 for the same salary. Several news outlets promptly described the idea as “wild” and “ambitious.” 

In reality, the move toward a four-day workweek is already underway. 

Hundreds of companies across the world have been shortening their workweek in recent years, allowing researchers to study the outcomes. The results — so far — are remarkable. Employees have reported lower stress and burnout as well as increased job satisfaction. Companies reported higher revenues and satisfaction with employee productivity.

Now more employers are jumping on board.

Brazil leads in Latin America

A hospital, an accounting firm and a hardware supplier are among 20 companies in Brazil that are preparing to switch to shorter workweeks. They’re the first employers in Latin America to take part in a six-month pilot program organized by 4 Day Week Global. The nonprofit group, based in New Zealand, runs the pilot programs, publishes research and advocates for government policies that support fewer work hours for equal pay. It recently completed similar pilot programs in Europe, Canada, the United States and South Africa.

Last week, staff began meeting with the companies in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and other Brazilian cities. They’re coaching companies on the best way to structure the shorter workweek while also addressing cultural challenges and local labor laws. 

“We’ve been thinking about how we can apply the program in Latin America and we think Brazil can open the doors,” said Gabriela Brasil, head of community for 4 Day Week Global. “It’s a big country with a lot of companies that have a presence all over Latin America.”

One challenge is ensuring that employees spend the extra day off at their leisure instead of taking a side job for extra money, she said.

Researchers at Boston College and the think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas will survey executives and employees before, during and after the program. They will look at productivity, employee satisfaction, stress levels and other factors. Most of the group’s funding comes from the companies that participate in the pilot programs, Brasil said, which pay a fee for the coaching and support.  

While 4 Day Week Global has helped normalize the four-day workweek, others have long questioned the effectiveness of working five days a week.

The five-day productivity myth

Working five days a week might be counterproductive. The idea that putting in long hours is better for a company’s bottom line is a myth, according to the International Labour Organization at the United Nations.

“In fact, longer hours of work are generally associated with lower unit labour productivity, while shorter hours of work are linked with higher productivity,” the group concluded in a 2018 research paper.

The late pPsychology professor Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied top performers in sports, entertainment and chess. Ericsson discovered that the best performers usually practiced in uninterrupted sessions that lasted no more than 90 minutes. They concluded that top performers rarely work more than 4.5 hours a day.

In July, researchers from Boston College published results from the 4 Day Week Global pilot program in the United States and Canada. 

None of the companies wanted to return to five days of work after making the change. They reported high satisfaction with productivity, performance and their ability to attract employees. They also noticed an average 15% spike in revenue during the pilot program. Employees also seemed happy with the shift. Seven in 10 reported less burnout and 40% felt less stressed. 

A total of 41 companies in the United States and Canada participated in the six-month program last year. The majority of employers — a total of 31 — were based in the United States. Most were small businesses and nonprofits, with a few larger companies, including the online crowdfunding website, Kickstarter.

While the research on four-day workweeks is promising, there is reason to be cautious.  

Most employers that have made the switch are small-to-midsize businesses and nonprofit organizations. And the pilot program in the United States mostly involved employees with desk jobs, with fewer blue-collar workers.

There’s also an added challenge for certain businesses, like a hospital, that will need to hire extra staff if their employees are working fewer shifts, said 4 Day Week Global’s Brasil. That’s because they need to have enough nurses and staff to care for patients around the clock. But she is confident that companies will save money in the long run because shifting to a four-day week is linked to lower employee turnover.

“The goal is to bring [a four-day workweek] to everyone, not just white-collar workers,” Brasil said.

Labor unions renew push for four-day workweek

It’s fitting that Detroit’s auto workers are pushing for a shorter workweek. American labor unions, along with Henry Ford, were some of the biggest advocates for limiting full-time work to five days a week.

Ford made the change official for his employees at Ford Motor Company in 1926, cutting work hours, but not pay.

“The country is ready for the 5-day week,” Ford wrote in his 1931 book Moving Forward.

Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, limiting the workweek for hourly employees to 44 hours. Two years later they lowered it to 40.

In 1956, then-Vice President Richard Nixon endorsed an even shorter work week on the campaign trail. He predicted the switch to four days would happen in the “not too distant future.”

The AFL-CIO, which is the largest federation of labor unions in the United States, listed the four-day workweek as one of its key goals a few years ago. The federation’s then-president Richard Trumka told me at the time that unions are “very serious” about the idea, especially as technology makes blue-collar workers more productive. 

But U.S. lawmakers have not had success translating the growing support for a shorter workweek into law. 

In January, Maryland lawmakers introduced a bill that would give employers a tax incentive to test out a four-day workweek. In April, Massachusetts did the same. Neither bill made it to the house or senate floors for a full vote.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have tried to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act three years in a row. They re-introduced the 32-Hour Workweek bill this year, which would shorten the standard workweek to 32 hours for hourly employees. It never made it to a vote, either.

(Editor’s note: The author of this article is a member of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a member union of the AFL-CIO.)

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Alexia Fernández Campbell is a senior investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington,...