Compressed Workweek

In compressed workweek schedules, the workweek is compressed into fewer than five days by increasing the number of hours an employee is required to work each day. The most common form of compressed workweek in the United States is the four-day, 40-hour workweek (4/40). Usually employees will take either Friday or Monday off, extending their weekend to three days. However, because some compressed workweek schedules are implemented because of long distances between the worker’s home and workplace (e.g., oil industry, merchant shipping), having a three-day weekend is not necessarily a part of a compressed workweek schedule. Recently, variations of the typical 4/40 schedule (e.g., 3/36, 3/38, and 3/40) have been adopted by some organizations. The Society for Human Resource Management’s 2001 Benefits Survey showed that 31% of respondents offered compressed workweeks.

The literature indicates that compressed workweek schedules are most commonly used in manufacturing settings. This is probably attributable to two reasons. First, because compressed workweek schedules still require all workers to attend work at the same time, they meet the interdependence requirement of assembly line settings. Second, manufacturing organizations typically do not serve retail customers and thus do not require employees to be present at regular time intervals (e.g., Monday to Saturday).

When considering the use of compressed workweeks, employers must keep in mind that the workweek can only be compressed to the extent that an employee’s daily working hours do not exceed any legal limit. Although the United States does not have any federal law that caps the number of working hours, many state and industry-specific laws do impose a cap. For example, truck drivers are only allowed to drive 11 hours per work period. Many other industrialized countries have federal caps that limit the use of certain types of compressed work-week schedules (e.g., a 3/40 schedule). For example, Germany and Japan have a 10-hour legal limit on the number of hours that can be worked on any given day.

Compared with other alternative work schedules (e.g., flexible work schedules), compressed workweeks are not always desired by employees and sometimes are even less desirable than the normal 5/40 work schedule. Research has found that younger employees favor compressed workweeks, whereas older workers do not. In addition, employees who favor compressed workweeks tend to occupy lower-income or lower-level jobs.

Perceived Benefits of a Compressed Workweek

From the employer’s perspective, compressed workweeks allow for longer working hours and thus lower start-up expenses. For example, in certain manufacturing industries, there is often a start-up expense each time a production line is put into use. By having employees work longer hours for fewer days, the overall daily start-up costs are reduced. For employees, compressed workweeks allow workers to enjoy larger blocks of leisure time and reduce transport expenses and overall commuting time because they work fewer days.

Two models have been developed to explain how compressed workweek schedules may affect employee and organizational outcomes. The first model uses a biological perspective focusing on the circadian rhythms of individuals. The hypothesis of this approach is that there are only a few hours each day when employees can perform at optimal levels. The second theoretical model is the job characteristics theory. This model proposes that there are core characteristics of each job (e.g., the amount of job autonomy) that induce positive psychological states, which, in turn, lead to positive effects on work-related outcomes. Using these models, a theoretical argument can be made about how compressed workweek schedules affect the most important organizational outcomes: productivity and performance, absenteeism from work, and job satisfaction or satisfaction with one’s work schedule.

The hypothesis of the circadian rhythm approach is that employees can perform at optimal levels for only a few hours each day. Thus, when employees work longer hours each day (an essential component of compressed workweeks), the amount of time they are working at suboptimal levels should increase. Furthermore, working longer hours should lead to an increase in fatigue, which also could negatively affect performance. Finally, if increased fatigue is associated with increased employee stress, then one would also expect to see a decrease in performance. Theoretically, then, the implementation of a compressed workweek schedule can be expected to lead to lower employee performance and productivity.

With respect to attendance at work, the introduction of a compressed workweek schedule should give employees more discretionary time, which should increase attendance. Employees who enjoy three-day weekends should be better able to balance work and nonwork demands. Being able to respond to work and nonwork conflicts more easily should reduce stress, and decreased employee stress has been linked to decreased absenteeism. Thus, the introduction of a compressed work schedule can be expected to have positive effects on absenteeism from work.

It has been hypothesized that a compressed workweek should increase an employee’s level of autonomy. The job characteristics model predicts that higher levels of job autonomy lead to higher job satisfaction. Thus, job satisfaction and satisfaction with one’s schedule should be positively affected by the introduction of a compressed workweek schedule.

Research on Compressed Workweeks

Narrative summaries of research on compressed workweeks have concluded that the effects of compressed workweek schedules on performance are mixed: Performance either improves or stays the same after the implementation of a compressed workweek schedule. However, some studies have found that performance does decrease, as predicted by the circadian rhythm model. Research that found a decrease in productivity also shows that fatigue does seem to play a role in this decrease. Specifically, as fatigue increased, performance decreased. These same narrative reviews also concluded that absenteeism does decrease following the implementation of a compressed workweek, although the results are mixed (i.e., some studies found no change in absenteeism, whereas others found a reduction). Finally, with respect to job satisfaction and satisfaction with one’s schedule, the narrative reviews concluded that the results are mixed (i.e., sometimes they increase and sometimes they decrease).

A quantitative review of the literature (i.e., a meta-analysis) also found that compressed workweek schedules positively affect supervisor performance ratings, job satisfaction, and satisfaction with one’s work schedule but do not affect productivity (a more objective measure of performance). Finally, and perhaps most surprising, the meta-analysis found that absenteeism is not affected by a compressed workweek schedule. In this meta-analysis, the time since the schedule intervention (i.e., how long after the introduction of the compressed workweek outcomes were measured) was also tested as a moderator of the effect of compressed workweek schedules. However, the results suggest that the effects of compressed workweeks do not change over time.

Summary

A recent quantitative review of the literature suggests that compressed workweeks have positive effects on supervisor-rated performance but not on productivity; therefore, an organization’s evaluation of these schedules with respect to performance depends on which of these criteria it puts more credence in. However, at the very least, an organization should not expect a decrease in performance with the introduction of a compressed workweek schedule. This, of course, goes against the hypotheses put forth by the circadian rhythm approach and suggests that future research is needed to explain this result. It also appears from the quantitative review that, on average, employees respond positively to compressed workweeks, although great variation is found across companies. Thus, an increase in job satisfaction and satisfaction with one’s work schedule should not be assumed. Whether these attitudinal measures increase depends on the makeup of the organization’s employees (e.g., older employees seem to dislike compressed workweeks). Finally, although an increase in attendance is an assumed benefit of introducing a compressed workweek, the quantitative review suggests this is not the case. This result goes against popular perceptions of compressed workweek schedules as well as the hypotheses that reduced employee stress resulting from more discretionary time will lead to less absenteeism. Thus, future research is needed to better understand why compressed workweeks do not seem to reduce absenteeism.

References:

  1. Baltes, B. B., Briggs, T. E., Huff, J. W., Wright, J. A., & Neuman, G. A. (1999). Flexible and compressed workweek schedules: A meta-analysis of their effects on work-related criteria. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 496-513.
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  4. Ronen, S., & Primps, S. B. (1981). The compressed workweek as organizational change: Behaviors and attitudinal outcomes. Academy of Management Review, 6, 61 -74.
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