In an experiment called the Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer for the month of August, Microsoft Japan gave its entire workforce five Fridays off in a row without a reduction in salaries. The shortened 4-day work weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers, better work-life balance and a significant jump in productivity by 40%. These results mirror the findings from previous pilot schemes run by other companies around the world, which bolster the case for shorter working hours or longer weekends that would reap better results and profits, as well as ensure the wellbeing of the planet and employees. At a time when city-dwellers are increasingly aware about the impact of stress levels on their physical and mental health, corporations are starting to take note.
In a pilot program conducted by Microsoft Japan, its entire workforce of 2,400 operated on a 4-day work week for the month of August. As a part of the scheme, the company also subsidised family vacations for employees up to around US$920. Releasing their findings, Microsoft Japan concluded that the shortened work weeks led to more efficient meetings, better work-life balance, 25% less time off, and a productivity boost of 40%.
Further, it’s a solution to our planet’s environmental issues. Microsoft’s report found that employees used 23% less electricity and printed 59% less paper – a boon for the environment. This is not the first suggestion of the planet-friendly advantages of a shorter work week. The Green Party in the United Kingdom, for instance, pledged in 2017 in their manifesto that a shorter 35-hour work week would not only bring social benefits to workers, but also help alleviate issues of pollution and resource wastage.
In a statement the CEO of Microsoft Japan Takuya Hirano said: “Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot. I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time.” The company plans to implement another trial of the challenge this winter.
The pilot project signals that companies are finally starting to pay attention to the harmful effects – both for employees, the planet and for companies’ profits – of workplace stress and burnout. In a recent statement, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” and could lead to prolonged feelings of exhaustion, mental distance and reduced professional efficacy. This issue is particularly prevalent in Asia, where overtime culture and lack of work-life balance is a daily struggle for many. The “966” work culture made famous by digital giant Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma, for instance, has taken a huge toll on Chinese tech employees, with a 2018 governmental survey indicating a sharp surge in fatigue, depression and insomnia. In Japan, death from overwork or karoshi has been an ongoing battle for the country’s politicians for years.
Workplace stress is debilitating Hong Kong workers too. In a 2018 study conducted by insurance firm Cigna, the Hong Kong population were ranked the 5th most stressed in the world. The survey, which spanned across 23 countries globally, saw Hong Kong people cite long working hours, workplace pressure and financial worries as key reasons that affected a large demographic in the city, from young students to millennials and those above 50 years.
These latest findings from Microsoft Japan are not the first time companies have found dual benefits stemming from a shorter work week. In November 2018, New Zealand financial services company Perpetual Guardian launched a trial 4-day week over 2 months for its 240-strong staff. Not only did stress levels drop by 7%, productivity increased by 20%, and staff reported better wellbeing. Inspired by these results, policy analysts have begun discussions proposing a change in current workplace practices. United Kingdom-based think tank New Economics Foundation, for instance, argued that a 21-hour working week would manage to drive up productivity, and would additionally lower the environmental impact in offices and distribute work more evenly across the population by reducing both unemployment and overwork.
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