Experts say a shorter working week improves well-being and doesn't have to mean less output for businesses
Could the UAE benefit from a four-day working week?
If you are enjoying an extra day off this week thanks to Thursday’s public holiday, simply imagine how good you would feel if the shorter working week was a permanent arrangement.
British trade unions this week said technological advances – especially in artificial intelligence – could create a four-day working week with employees keeping the same salaries but increasing productivity.
It is an appealing proposition – and the good news is that research is on their side. Studies revealed simply how good for you, your family and your employer working less is.
In a recent experiment to try out a shorter working week, a company in New Zealand allowed its employees to work four days, but paid them for five to see how it affected the business.
The results were so positive, showing a marked reduction in stress, an improved work-life balance and no loss of productivity, the company planned to make the switch permanent.
Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and founder of the LightHouse Centre for Well-being in Dubai, said: “There is something about human nature that when you give someone less time, they get the same amount done as they would if you had given them longer for the task,”
“When you have less time, you are more focused,” she said.
A significant portion of the UAE population works six days a week, and in some cases even seven days, so a four-day working week may not be achievable for everyone. But Dr Afridi said people could do with more time off.
One day off is certainly not enough, she said, it “makes people resentful”.
“It makes people overworked and that actually takes a huge toll on their well-being,” she said.
“We need at least two days off – one to simply shut down and the other to energise.”
Working less means you have more time to do things you want to outside of work, such as hobbies and social activities.
And the increasing use of technology and AI is making the prospect of a shorter working week more realistic, reducing workloads and freeing up more employees’ time, experts agreed.
A study by Michael Page recruiters found that AI will inevitably take over more data-driven and pattern-recognition tasks, which tend to be monotonous.
“This will free up more time for employees to focus on intellectually challenging tasks,” says Pierre-Emmanuel Dupil, senior managing director at PageGroup Middle East and Africa.
“For instance, with the adoption of intelligent chatbots and automated, consumer-facing platforms, the repetitive elements of the job of customer service workers are being eliminated.”
Many companies are now thinking about introducing a shorter working week – including some businesses in the UAE.
HR bosses at Bosch, a German engineering and electronics company, which has an office in Dubai, say they would consider it if the practice was found to benefit the company and its employees.
“We need to consider it because the world is changing,” said Simone Beretta, head of human resources at Bosch Middle East.
“There is a lot of technology supporting our activities, so our productivity will increase. We have to be ready to change.”
The company introduced a series of initiatives to improve the well-being of its staff, starting in 2013, including flexible hours and working from home.
Although they still work a 40-hour week, employees have the choice of starting work any time between 7am and 10am, and of finishing between 4pm and 7pm.
In 2015, Bosch implemented a policy allowing staff to work from home, without justification, four times a month. It improved its maternity leave, more than doubling the amount provided under UAE law. New mothers can also take up to three months’ unpaid leave.
The next step, Mr Beretta said, will be to ask whether working fewer hours would be better for everyone.
“It’s a trend that we have to be open to and consider,” he said.
Yet a shorter week does not work for everyone.
Anisa Purbasari Horton tried it and, she said, was more stressed as a result.
“Unpredictable work came up, other tasks got pushed to the bottom of my to-do pile, but at some point, they still needed to be done,” she wrote in an article for Fast Company, a US business magazine.
“As a result, I ended up working longer hours to fit everything into my four-day deadline.
“Some days that was worth doing, but other days, I simply felt exhausted or annoyed that I had to cancel my evening plans.”
Therein lies the problem, some experts say – a four-day working week also risks putting some people under even more pressure.
“There is the potential that employees might report greater stress and issues around work demands because they are now, in effect, doing their current workload in four days rather than five,” said Art Cozad, chief executive of Cigna Insurance Middle East, which carries out an annual study into well-being in the workplace.
And one less business day a week may not benefit the company either. In 2008, governor of the US state of Utah, Jon Huntsman, introduced a four-day week for public employees who worked 10 hours a day from Monday to Thursday.
But two years later it turned out that the plan had not led to promised operational savings.
Mr Cozad said there are smarter ways to approach a shorter working week. Companies could introduce flexible working days, working in shifts, and even working from home to ensure someone is available around the clock.
But what if the four-day effect is temporary, and once everyone is used to it, they go back to feeling simply as stressed and overworked as before?
“Yes, I think there is a chance of that happening,” Dr Afridi said. However, she allows her employees to work flexibly, with good results.
“We know about human motivation. We know what drives people, and I think flexibility and autonomy, these kinds of things really do drive people,” she said. “If the outcomes are not being compromised, then you could even have a three-day working week. For me, it doesn’t matter.”