Are Shorter Workweeks the Way of the Future?

September 29, 2016

Fostering an environment that promotes a solid work-life balance has been a goal of progressive employers for years. The average American employee works more hours per week and takes less time off than employees in other developed countries. These grueling workweeks can lead to employees getting “burnt out,” causing them to be less productive and efficient. In order to combat burnout, many employers have started to experiment with different workweek structures, such as compressed workweeks or overall work hour reduction.

Some employers have implemented compressed workweek policies in which employees work 40 hours over three or four days, as opposed to the normal five. These schedules enable employees to work a normal amount of full-time hours while having the ability to enjoy a longer time off during the weekend.

Other employers have taken a very different approach by reducing the total amount of hours an employee works from 40 to 30. Hour reduction can either result in shorter workdays or shorter workweeks, providing employees with more flexibility than a typical 9-to-5.


Burnout occurs when employees overwork themselves to the point of both physical and mental exhaustion. Even the most dedicated employee, or someone who simply loves his or her job, can experience burnout. Not only does this affect the individual employee and his or her family, but it can also cause a huge detriment to the employer.

Stressed, exhausted employees may fall behind in their duties or produce sub-par work, costing employers extra time and effort in order to catch up or remedy poor performance. Additionally, burnt out employees can cause employers to pay higher healthcare costs, since stress and exhaustion often lead to an increase in physical illness. For more information on the causes and cures of burnout, see our Blog Post, Workplace Insights – Avoiding Burnout.

Currently, employers are experimenting with two approaches for altering a workforce’s normal workweek structure: (1) the compressed workweek, and (2) overall hour reduction.

Compressed Workweeks

Having a compressed workweek reduces the number of days that an employee works while increasing the amount of hours he or she works per day. In these situations, the employee still works a full 40 hours. Generally, employers allow for a four-day workweek as opposed to five, with employees working 10 hours each day; however, there are some employees who are on three-day workweek schedules, working an average of 12 hours per day.

Longer work hours enable employees to focus on single tasks for longer periods of time without interruption. Additionally, employers who have experimented with compressed workweeks have noted that their employees work faster and are more focused on their tasks.

Compressed workweeks can create issues, especially for smaller employers, when one employee calls out sick; however, some employers noted a decrease in the amount of sick days their employees take when on a compressed schedule. Many employers who provide compressed workweeks claim that the complications with employees calling out are “worth it” when they consider how beneficial the schedule is not only for productivity, but also for obtaining and retaining talented employees.

Reduced Work Hours

Workweeks that provide for an overall reduction in hours have been growing in popularity over the past years, even with larger employers like Amazon, which recently announced its new “Part Time Team Initiative.” On these schedules, employees’ hours are reduced, generally to 30 hours per week.

Reduced work hour schedules provide some of the largest amount of flexibility. They enable employees to work shorter weeks, shorter days, or a combination of the two. Amazon’s new program requires participating employees to work specified hours from Monday through Thursday, which add up to 16 hours, the remaining 14 hours are then completed at the employees’ convenience throughout the week.

Studies have found that productivity either plateaus or declines after more than five or six hours of focus. Because of this, employers who allow their employees to work shorter daily hours have seen an increase in productivity and overall quality of work. Additionally, these employers believe that reduced hours make their employees happier and more productive, as well as help recruit and retain skilled employees. 

Legal Considerations

Although altering the standard workweek can have major benefits for both employees and employers, it also presents legal considerations that employers must take into account before making any final decisions.

Some states, including California, require employers to pay overtime to employees who work more than eight hours in a single day, rather than only requiring overtime for employees who work more than 40 hours per week. Additionally, other states, such as New York, may have “spread of hours” laws that require extra payment for non-exempt employees who work more than 10 hours from the start of their shift to the end, including all break and meal periods.

In implementing reduced work schedules, employers will face the daunting task of determining whether reduced hours change an employee’s status from full-time to part-time. Combined with this task is the determination of salary and whether or not these employees will be eligible to receive benefits, and if so, which ones.


While a 40-hour workweek may work for some, for others it is causing increased quality and health issues. As the average person’s lifespan continues to increase, the need to prevent early out is more important as ever. Prudent employers should take a serious look at their workforce in order to determine whether a compressed or reduced hours schedule would benefit their employees, and subsequently benefit their operations.

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