Can a shorter work week help work-life balance?

Expert divide: there are arguments both for and against the four-day work week.

Earlier this year, Greens senator Richard Di Natale suggested Australia consider adopting a four-day work week to give families a better work-life balance. Our three experts say it’s not that simple.

By Susan Muldowney

Professor Jeff Borland

Professor of Economics at the University of Melbourne

Professor Jess BorlandThe proposal for a four-day week is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. 

Firstly, there is no evidence that the amount of work available in the Australian economy has declined since the 1960s. Secondly, the work that is available is more evenly shared among the workforce-age population than at any time in the past three decades. 

A larger proportion of people in employment are working part-time, but this has been more than offset by a rise in the proportion of those who are employed. The consequence is that there’s certainly no need to regulate for a four-day week to more evenly share the load of available work. A four-day work week is a blunt way to change the distribution of work and would be associated with a range of negative consequences. 

There is currently flexibility for employers to choose the length of the work week for the work they need to get done. 

“A four-day work week is a blunt way to change the distribution of work.” Jeff Borland

There’s also a reasonable degree of flexibility for workers to choose jobs with the hours they want to work. 

Regulating for a four-day week would reduce productivity in jobs where it makes sense to have the same worker doing the job. it would also penalise those workers who prefer jobs with longer hours and are happy working a five-day week.

Dr Lindsay McMillan OAM

Managing director of Reventure

Dr Lindsay McMillanOn face value, a four-day work week seems like the answer to Australia’s work-life balance struggle, but in practice it is more a passing fad than a sustainable solution.

A four-day work week may allow workers another day for family and “living”, but it does nothing to address the bigger issues occurring when workers are at work.  

Reventure’s research of 1000 Australian employees revealed that 46 per cent feel like they can’t turn work off anymore, whether they are in the office or not, so a four-day work week may not change very much for these workers. 

While the debate around the four-day work week signals Australia is at least beginning to acknowledge the important role workplace wellbeing plays, it does not achieve genuine change. 

In order to achieve this, we need to take a holistic approach to our workplaces to improve outcomes for workers, management and the organisation. 

“... it does nothing to address the bigger issues occurring when workers are at work.” Lindsay McMillan

Employers need to take a closer look at the culture and relationships within workplaces, which are closely linked to inclusion, development, engagement and life enhancement – four principles that are essential to maintain a healthy workplace. 

The “A Future That Works” campaign aims to ignite a robust debate about changing entrenched work practices and improving outcomes for Australian workers. This is achieved through a comprehensive reform process, rather than partial measures like a four-day work week. 

Professional Development: Optimising your work/life balance: this course will focus on techniques for maintaining work/life balance.

Dr Judy Rose

Research fellow at the Griffith Institute for Educational Research at Griffith University

Working a four-day work week can enhance wellbeing when you are in the right job, but it does not necessarily reduce time stress or improve work-life balance. 

My research has found that when women work four days a week, rather than full-time, it provides a signal to spouses to slide over a greater load of unpaid work duties. This might include responsibility for child care, housework or paying the household bills. 

In this scenario, the extra day gained by working a four-day week is filled up with more chores rather than providing stress-busting “me time”. Yet, for women with children, working four days instead of five is an acceptable social norm that says, “I am keeping my career going, but not at the expense of my family”. 

There are advantages and disadvantages for employees who work a four-day work week. For example, if your job has set hours or involves shifts, then it might reduce stress to have that added free day for leisure, exercise or relaxation. 

“If your job has set hours or involves shifts, it might reduce stress to have that added free day for leisure or ..... relaxation.” Judy Rose

If you are in a job with less fixed hours or in a work role prone to overtime, however, you might find that you are actually doing a full-time workload but squeezing it into four very long days. 

In this scenario, it is important to keep your employer aware of the actual hours you are working and be willing to negotiate responsibilities at work, so that they do not exceed a four-day limit. 

The experts

Jeff Borland
Jeff Borland is an economist and Truby Williams Professor of Economics at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on analysing the operation of labour markets in Australia, program and policy evaluation and design, economic history and sports economics. He has acted as a consultant on labour market and microeconomics issues to organisations such as the OECD, IMF and New Zealand Treasury.

Dr Lindsay McMillan OAM
Managing director of global HR think tank Reventure Limited, Lindsay McMillan is lead researcher of Australia’s national “A Future That Works” campaign to renew workplaces. As a thought leader and social commentator, he undertakes research and helps raise public debate about the future of the workplace. He is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Dr Judy Rose
In her role as a research fellow at the Griffith Institute for Educational Research at Griffith University, Judy Rose investigates the role part-time employment plays in managing employees’ time pressure and stress; the wellbeing in disadvantaged schools; and improving student engagement. She holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Queensland.

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