Ever since Tim Ferris came up with his four-hour work week, the cult status book has been expounding on one thing: frenetic work is unsustainable. Instead, freedom and autonomy should be the core of our work life.
While a lifestyle of working four hours a week is a practical and economic impossibility for many, the Elysian visions in Ferris’ book have prevailed.
Tragically, it took a pandemic to make us re-evaluate the way we work. Besides remote and hybrid options, a four-day work week became the latest model to gather widespread discussion.
For a country like Singapore besieged by insanely long work hours, is a four-day workweek the elixir we need to improve our work-life balance and mental health?
Movers and shakers
When Minister for Manpower Dr Tan Lee Seng gave us his blessings to pilot a four-day work week, he was not the first politician to moot the idea. Way back in 1956, Richard Nixon, the then vice-president of America had already mooted the idea.
For decades, the four-day work week floated around as an abstract concept, never gaining traction or consideration until Iceland decided to implement it as a trial back in 2015.
Touted as a solution to improve work-life balance without sacrificing productivity, proponents of the four-day work week believed the policy would make workers happy and motivated. That, in itself, is seen as the formula for churning out productive workers.
So far, the data seems to be proving the hypothesis correct. Iceland, one of the first countries to usher in the four-day work week, has hailed the policy as an overwhelming success.
Japan, the birthplace of Karoshi, also tested out a four-day work week in 2019. Microsoft, the firm behind the trial, ended up reporting a jump in productivity as measured by sales per employee and a fall in electricity costs.
By 2022, four-day work week trials, in part driven by 4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit community, started sweeping Europe, North America and Australasia by storm.
From Iceland to Japan, researchers have found that despite working less, productivity has not suffered as initially feared. In fact, it has even improved in a majority of workplaces.
Challenges of a four-day work week
If a four-day workweek is truly the holy grail to raise productivity, it is not surprising that our government wants us to give it a go.
As for the sentiments on the ground, a study by Milieu found that three in four Singaporeans expressed great interest in jobs that provided three-day weekends.
However, changing a Human Resource (HR) policy is the easy part. The real challenge lies in ensuring productivity stays the same within a shorter work week.
To that end, businesses will need to overhaul the way they do things and cut out as much bureaucracy as possible to streamline processes.
It might involve empowering employees to be confident in making simple decisions. Halting the culture of managers who always insist on having the last say, even on things as mundane as what flavoured mooncake to order.
Ultimately, it’s about relinquishing control and trusting employees to do their thing instead of micromanaging them.
But with so many managers still subscribing to the belief that results can only be accomplished with long hours, efficiency is seldom rewarded unless you are a competitive eater.
Next, assuming that work-life balance is the motivation behind pursuing a four-day work week, it is a solution that does not address the root of the problem. Simply put, how do you undo a deeply ingrained belief that associates work with success? You can’t, at least not within a few years.
The four-day work week is a fragile concept that falls apart as soon as an employee disregards the mandate and continues working on a five-day schedule.
Doing so consecutively will make those who don’t look seemingly less productive. And as a result, everyone ends up working more, making a mockery of the intentions behind a four-day work week.
This is game theory in action, and we are all worse off because of it.
Will it work in Singapore?
Until Singaporeans can recalibrate their mindset and attitude towards work, a four-day work week is unlikely to bring about the benefits of work-life balance spoken by participants in the West.
It is also worth noting that an idea that worked well for Europe will not necessarily translate in other regions with similar results. Just look at where we got with democracy. Sometimes, there are just too many cultural nuances for an idea imported wholesale to work without hiccups.
As of now, there are a few small-medium enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore offering a four-day work week as a solution to reduce turnover rates. But somehow, it is a move that says more about the general dreadfulness of the job rather than the benefits of a four-day week.
A large-scale study is still the only way to discover if such a flexible work arrangement will work in Singapore. Without which, all we have are postulations.
Featured Image Credit: Unscrambled.sg