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Burnout Threatens Our Mental Health, but a Four-Day Work Week Can Save Us. Here’s How.

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Our capitalist society has a burnout problem. As many of us work 40-hour weeks (or often more) for inadequate pay that fails to meet the rising costs of living, and employers guilt us into taking less paid time off or even calling in sick, we are collectively feeling the strain. And yet, while we pride ourselves on our “hustle culture” and the supposed positives of working longer hours for diminishing health returns, hustle culture also impacts the disability community and simply isn’t congruent with a healthy lifestyle. We’ve been collectively brainwashed to believe that more work means a more fulfilling life, and it simply isn’t true.

Burnout is insidious. It creeps in when you aren’t looking — between that fourth panic attack of the week and that second missed deadline. It’s there in the mornings you just can’t get out of bed until the very last second, and in the lump that rises in your throat when you realize the weekend is already over and Monday begins anew the next day.

We have to watch out for the subtle signs of burnout and how it impacts our health across the board. While the World Health Organization classifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” that includes fatigue, feeling negative about one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy, it can affect every area of our lives. Our own Mighty contributors have discussed how burnout impacts their depression, how ADHD symptoms worsen with burnout, and even how burnout changes passive suicidal ideation into active suicidal ideation. Mental health aside, it impacts chronic illness too.

So what is the solution? Well, there may be one, though it requires a societal shift that I’m not sure many are willing to make. However, it’s already been trialed to great success.

I’m talking about a four-day work week with no loss of pay.

It sounds too good to be true, but statistics show it could actually have huge benefits to worker mental health. On August 1, 2022, CNN Business reported the early results of a trial based right here in my home turf of the United Kingdom. The six-month pilot consists of 3,300 workers across 70 companies, with the only stipend being to maintain 100% of their productivity. Researchers will measure the impact the new working pattern will have on productivity levels, gender equality, the environment, and worker well-being.

While this trial is ongoing, CNN also reports a similar trial in Iceland which saw a dramatic increase in employee well-being with no drop in productivity. Workers were able to work the same or better while simultaneously feeling better in their health. Meanwhile, a California bill proposing overtime to be paid to employees working over 32 hours a week has unfortunately been shelved after it did not meet the deadline.

Regardless, the benefits are clear. A study by the U.K.’s Henley Business School found that a four-day work week “increased overall quality of life for employees, with over three quarters (78%) of implementing businesses saying staff were happier, less stressed (70%) and took fewer days off ill (62%).” Not only that, but employers also stand to benefit; nearly two-thirds reported improvements in staff productivity.

It makes sense. If our mental health isn’t being affected by burnout, and our relationship with work isn’t being negatively colored by the bitterness one starts to feel when burnout strikes, then we’re bound to work harder, feel happier, and be healthier.

Crucially, it’s about working fewer hours, not fewer days. A measure introduced in Belgium allowed employees to take a three-day weekend in exchange for working longer hours, but as author Jonathan Malesic, Ph.D., says, “Your productivity after the 8th hour on the job probably diminishes, but the stress doesn’t.”

The idea is gaining traction, with even Healthline reporting on its mental health benefits. But the benefits go beyond simply mental health. Less time working means more time spent doing the things we love, such as hobbies or spending time with our friends and families, while also spending more time taking care of ourselves through exercise, meditation, and other wellness modalities. A four-day work week even allows more time for health appointments and greater scheduling flexibility.

But the greatest benefit, I believe, is its impact on burnout and working conditions. While the 40-hour work week has its origins in improving worker conditions after the Industrial Revolution, we can do far more as a society to ensure workers can work efficiently while still finding a strong work-life balance and maintaining their health. We have to advocate for it where and when we can. After all, while we at The Mighty have many articles on burnout, we also have many, many articles on leaving a job because your mental health is in jeopardy. While it’s easier said than done given the society we live in, we must not compromise our health for a job. We are worth so much more than that.

I’m certain that employers would rather we stay in our jobs and maintain our health than quit our jobs over poor working conditions and worsening mental health.

Getty image by South_agency

Originally published: September 7, 2022
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