Is the four-day work week a solution for employee burnout?


Burnout prevention and recovery activist Judy Klipin and 4 Day Week SA director Karen Lowe led a discussion on burnout during the recent CHRO Community Conversation.

A four-day working week can be a feasible solution for preventing employee burnout in the workplace, according to Karen Lowe, director of 4 Day Week SA.

She was speaking during the CHRO Community Conversation on 28 February, where the topic of burnout, employee wellness and a four-day working week was discussed with an intimate group of South Africa’s leading HR professionals.

"The introduction of the 4-day week was first started as productivity research but post Covid-19 it has now become wellness research - the happy result would of course be finding out if a reduced work week can positively impact production and revenue. It is now South Africa's turn to pilot the programmes," Karen said.

The model is based on 100 percent pay and leave for 80 percent of time and 100 percent output.

"If an organisation can gift a 20 percent reduction in the work week in return for 100 percent productivity, a unique ecosystem emerges," she noted.

Different strokes for different folks

Contrary to popular belief, the 4-day week programme is not a free-for-all where people can easily skip work at their peril. Instead, work-time reduction models are planned accordingly.

Three key types of work-time reduction models are used, noted Karen. A fifth-day stoppage where the company shuts down operations for one additional day per week, a staggered model where staff take alternating days off in cohorts as well as a decentralised model where different departments operate on different work patterns.

"As part of the South African pilot plan we are collaborating with 29 local companies, starting 1 March while the larger African pilot will kick off in June 2023. We have also partnered with Boston College and Stellenbosch Business School who will provide the academic rigour that will ensure that we have an unbiased set of results to report on," Karen said.

Sharing results from previous pilot projects across the UK, Karen said business performance and productivity both scored an average of 7.5/10 on two separate scales. Revenue rose by 1.4 percent on average over the trial (weighted by company size across respondent organisations).

When compared to a similar period from previous years, organisations reported revenue increases of 35 percent, on average. The number of staff leaving fell by 57 percent over the trial period, while 92 percent of organisations who took part in the pilot have committed to continuing their 4-day week model.

"Of the five companies who are not continuing with the 4-day week, two have opted to extend their trials and three are pausing for the moment. Companies rated their overall experience of the trial an 8.3/10. Those who are not continuing with the trial have two things in common - they didn't prepare adequately for the change management and secondly, the companies mandated the approach to work time reduction from C-suite down and failed to collaborate," Karen explained.

Neridha Moodley, head of people & culture at SNG Grant Thornton highlighted that companies have to consider client needs. “So unless clients also buy into the concept of a 4 day workweek, it will become difficult for organisations such as ours to implement the concept.”

PPC's head of HR Ndima Rawana said the concept is not new to South Africa, as shift workers have been using a similar approach for decades. “I have a strong view that before we can talk about a 4 day work week, we need to talk about a 5 day work week. Many professionals work prolonged hours on each day and still do some work over the weekends. Others would even carry their laptops when they go on leave. People work 6 to 7 days a week, nonstop. That is what causes a burnout. I think the drive should be to get to a 5 day work week. I know many people will say, this is what it is today, but that's just on paper [employment contract]. In practice, it is 6 to 7 days a week.”


Karen explained that at present four narratives give an overall picture of the local workplace namely low productivity, lacking employee wellness, growing critical skills shortages and a multitude of socio-psychological pressures.

Judy agreed, adding that the 4-day week is an opportunity to deal with burnout crisis levels in the workplace. "Burnout is a sustainability issue for organisations. Longer work hours increased demands at home, Covid-19 introduced new stressors to nearly every domain of life. People are emotionally, mentally, intellectually and spiritually taking strain."

Judy said, although symptoms of burnout and depression were similar, one should not be mistaken for the other. "Depression is more of a feeling of life whereas burnout is more of being exhausted by life."

Both should however be treated professionally, without bias and not stigmatised. Judy advised that prevention is always better than cure when dealing with depression and burnout in an individual. "If we don't pay attention to burnout the symptoms worsen and can result in lifestyle illnesses such as depression, divorce and diabetes. I am not an alarmist but this is the reality we face today."

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