Earlier this year, the Nordic Island country of Iceland released the results of what was the world’s largest trial of a four-day working week. The experiment – which was conducted with 2,500 workers across multiple industries over a four-year period – was heralded as an “overwhelming success”. Workers were found to be less stressed, at lower risk of burnout, and more likely to report a better work-life balance.
The rest of the world has been in the middle of a workplace experiment of its own, albeit an unplanned one. The pandemic has been our biggest ever remote work trial, with the sudden and dramatic shift last year forcing businesses to adapt traditional ways of working and introduce more flexibility.
As we emerge from the pandemic, and accelerate the shift to hybrid work models, businesses have a unique opportunity to rethink traditional workplace structures that have underpinned operations for centuries and discover new ways of working that can drive increased employee health and engagement in the future.
After the success in Iceland, similar trials of the four-day working week are taking place in Spain and New Zealand, and it will be interesting to see the results of those experiments. However, we should not expect a fundamental shift to such a model, because if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there is no one perfect approach to workplace structures.
If we look at measures taken by businesses to support employees during the pandemic, 64 per cent of companies introduced a new wellbeing benefit, and 87 per cent provided flexible work hours for employees to take care of children. However, in recent surveys, we’ve started to see these initiatives resulting in feelings of unfair treatment; 82 per cent of employees have reported working in a low fairness environment.
Just as remote working was found to benefit certain employee groups like parents and introverts more than others, a four-day working week would not suit everyone. Its success would also vary based on business factors such as industry, geography, culture, and job function. So, while the Iceland experiment shouldn’t compel all businesses to instantly cancel their Fridays, it should inspire them to experiment with new approaches tailored to the needs of their organisation.
Mental Capacity as a Commodity
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for maintaining a healthy and happy workforce, there is a general philosophy that should underpin all organisation’s post-pandemic experiments which involves thinking about employee’s mental capacity as a commodity.
Traditionally, employers would try to get the maximum amount of operational time from each employee per working day, believing that this approach would generate increased output. In-fact, all they would achieve was employee burnout and subsequently lower levels of engagement and retention.
Instead, business and HR leaders should consider employees as each having a certain amount of mental capacity per day or week, which the business needs to manage and utilise in the most effective way. For example, if a business accepts that each employee has 6 hours of optimum brain function per day, they can provide support mechanisms to get the most out of employees during those 6 hours.
Over the course of the pandemic, 85 per cent of workers experienced higher levels of burnout and 55 per cent experienced significant damage to their health. By thinking of mental capacity as a commodity, businesses can reverse these problems as we move into a new era of working.
Enhancing Employee Wellbeing
These fundamental changes in business philosophy will allow organisations to focus on bolstering their employee wellbeing initiatives. This is not only the right thing to do on the back of a turbulent period, but it also makes business sense. Our research has found that a business can actively increase good mental health in employees from 54 per cent to 77 per cent, and by providing holistic wellbeing support, boost discretionary effort by 21 per cent.
The pandemic has caused people to reconsider what they want from an employer, with many now valuing flexibility and wellbeing support above compensation. Organisations should therefore be putting wellbeing strategies as the heart of post-pandemic workplace restructuring.
To enhance mental wellness, business and HR leaders should consider five key areas of the employee experience – financial security, living situation, work setting, physical health and stage of life demands. This will help them consider the needs of their entire workforce and tailor their offerings for maximum benefit.
During the pandemic, businesses introduced a range of wellbeing initiatives to support their staff in what was a traumatic time. However, only 27 per cent of organisations plan to maintain the programs introduced during the pandemic for the foreseeable future – this is a huge mistake.
On the back of this pandemic, businesses will recognise not only the impact of an employee’s personal life on their performance, but also their ability as a company to support them. And those that prioritise wellbeing initiatives will be rewarded with increased performance, loyalty, and job satisfaction.
Businesses should seize the opportunity to experiment with new workplace designs and structures and put mental capacity and wellbeing at the heart of those strategies.