The case for a four-day work week

The case for a four-day work week

Having a work-life balance is a growing priority for many workers. It has come into even sharper focus as employees learn how to live with the pressure brought by the protracted coronavirus pandemic.

Despite widespread shifts in working arrangements to hybrid models, many employees have reported burnout as they learned to adapt to the new normal. Women, in particular, cite increased stress.

Deloitte's Women @ Work 2022 report indicated that 53% of 5,000 women surveyed in 10 countries say their stress levels are higher than they were a year ago, and almost half feel burned out. Nearly 40% say burnout is the main reason they are actively looking for a new employer.

More than half of those surveyed want to leave their employer in the next two years, and only 10% plan to stay with their current employer for more than five years, noted the report launched on April 27.

And while the hybrid workplace is here to stay, it reduces the opportunity for face-to-face interaction, which could magnify existing biases and create barriers to success, notes Seah Gek Choo, talent leader at Deloitte Southeast Asia.

The good news is that as notoriously long hours are taking a toll on workers, companies and governments across Asia are cautiously testing the idea of a four-day work week. Following the path taken in countries such as Spain, Iceland and Belgium, they are looking at making offices more fulfilling places to work.

Japan, long known for its punishing work culture, is at the forefront, with some of its biggest corporate names getting on the bandwagon. Panasonic announced plans in January to introduce an optional four-day work week to promote a healthier work-life balance.

Hitachi also plans to introduce four-day work weeks for about 15,000 of its employees in the current financial year. The Pokemon game developer Game Freak has already introduced the system for some staff. NEC and other big Japanese corporate names are considering similar measures.

In South Korea, the education company Eduwill adopted the system in 2019. India, meanwhile, is reforming its labour codes to give workers the option of working four days a week, though total hours worked per week would remain unchanged at 48.

Surveys across the region point to shorter weeks as one of the most desired changes among workers. The research firm Milieu Insight in February found that more than 76% of Singaporeans expressed great interest in jobs that provided three-day weekends. Similar enthusiasm was found in Vietnam (78%) and Indonesia (69%).

In mature economies like Singapore, quality of life and what work means are big considerations. Many people no longer want a life in which they live to work, but they aspire to "have a life and work to maintain it", says Jaya Dass, the managing director at the recruitment agency Randstad Singapore.

In Indonesia, the peer-to-peer lender Alami introduced four-day work weeks last year in an effort to improve the mental health and productivity of its workers.

Nonetheless, not all Southeast Asian workers were as enthusiastic about shorter work weeks. The Milieu survey found only 48% of Malaysians highly interested, and 41% lukewarm to the idea.

Myanmar and Cambodia, where many workers hold blue-collar jobs, showed even less interest in a shorter work week. Perhaps this reflects a traditional belief in Asia that longer hours often mean more money.

But maybe it's time to spread the message that extremely long working hours do not necessarily translate into high productivity. According to a 2021 report by the Asian Productivity Organization, countries in the region, with Singapore the only exemption, trail the West in terms of labour productivity. The average productivity level for the 10 Asean countries was 81% below that of the US.

But company action alone is not enough. Governments must get on board to achieve the goal. In China, for example, shorter working hours might undermine President Xi Jinping's ambition to make China a mid-tier developed country by 2035.

Then there are the practical challenges of introducing such a fundamental change. Issues such as heavy workloads on certain employees, and the greater complexity of managing attendance and calculating pay, have to be addressed.

Besides good pay and benefits, having a work-life-balance is a valuable aspect of a job for more employees these days. Granting workers longer weekends, while keeping their productivity and pay the same could be a win-win solution for workers and companies alike.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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