Employee burnout is a pervasive and serious problem.
In a recent McKinsey study, which evaluated data from 423 companies employing 12 million workers, and polled more than 65,000 employees, it was found that burnout levels are higher for women in the corporate workforce this year than last, and it’s worsening at a faster rate among women than men. In 2021, about 42% of women reported being burned out often or almost always, compared to 32% in 2020.
One solution to the problem that is gaining a lot of traction is the introduction of a 4-day workweek - 32 hours of labour per week rather than 40.
The thinking is that by reducing the time that employees are required to spend doing work, that somehow the extra hours spent away from work will reduce work-related burnout issues.
This of course would make complete sense if we were living in the year 1920 and 'work' involved clocking-in at a factory and then clocking-out at the end of the day. Less time making widgets in a production facility would certainly equal less time working and less work-related stress and burnout.
By Cal Newport in a recent New Yorker article makes an excellent observation, which makes a mockery of this kind of limited, linear thinking.
'The issue - when it comes to the modern-day knowledge worker - is not how many hours you’re now asked to work but the volume of work you’re assigned at any one time.'
'By volume, I’m referring to the total number of obligations that you’re committed to complete—from answering a minor question to finishing a major project. As this volume increases past a certain threshold, the weight of these efforts can become unbearably stressful. Humans are uniquely adept at crafting long-term strategic plans for accomplishing objectives. Our facility with planning, however, falters when confronting an in-box stuffed with hundreds of messages and a task list that fills multiple pages. When there’s too much for us to imagine actually completing, we short-circuit our executive functioning mechanisms, resulting in a feeling of anxious unease.'
Reducing the hours that make up a work week is not going to reduce the volume of work that people are expected to get through - if anything, it could actually compound the issue by forcing people to get through more with less time.
The solution rather is a ceiling on the sheer number of tasks workers need to deliver.
Reduce the workload you give people and you lessen the burden.
Managers will then need to put a lot more effort into exactly what work really needs to be assigned to staff, rather than just firing off tasks at random to people.
By carefully considering and limiting the total workload volume that is distributed to employees, companies will ironically also get more done and produce a higher quality of work from less stressed employees.
Less work, better work, slower working - these are the key concepts that should be explored here before blindly assuming that a shorter workweek will somehow make the problem go away.