The 4-Day Workweek

No, it’s not a 4-hour workweek. But according to this article from Time magazine, Utah’s state experiment with keeping its government offices open longer hours, but only being open four days per week, has been a success.  Even though people are working the same number of hours, not having to heat or keep the lights on in buildings on that fifth day has reduced energy costs by 13 percent. Employees save on gas and, more critically for us on this blog, they save time commuting as well. And apparently, they don’t suffer from burn-out. While this will be obvious to those of us in the private sector, a 10-hour day turns out not to be too burdensome.

Indeed, I think there’s a lot to recommend it, compared with an 8-hour day. Every time you get up and go to work, there are transaction costs: getting ready, commuting, the little rituals people have (such as checking headlines and getting their coffee) when they show up at work. Since these are sunk costs, you make them back over the course of the day. If you quit after 4 or 5 hours, as some people who work part-time do, you’re probably not going to be that efficient. By 8 hours, though, you’ve really cut down on those fixed costs per hour worked. If you work 10 hours, you cut them down more. Twelve hours would cut them even farther, though at some point you do encounter the burn-out issue. I tend to think this kicks in around 12 hours for people, and if you look at people’s actual time logs, most people claiming to work 80 hours per week are in fact working less than 60 — or a bit shy of 12 hours per week day. This is the point of diminishing returns. But up to then, your returns on investment increase.

This suggests that, if you’re going to work 35-40 hours per week, the basic definition of full-time, you’re best off working 3 12-hour days. This concentrates work in blocks of time where the transaction costs are lowest, and lets you indulge in some longer leisure pursuits as well. Interestingly, this is the schedule many nurses work, and nursing is widely regarded as one of the “best” professions. But 4 10-hour days isn’t bad, either. The transaction costs are low and you get a full extra day for concentrated blocks of leisure. Of course, the environmental benefits are nice, too, but as so often happens, the “green” solution is actually the optimal solution for other reasons too– it’s always good to use scarce resources (energy, time) most efficiently.

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