Summer doesn’t officially end until late next month, but who are we kidding: This is our last real week of summer, which makes August 29 our last summer Friday of 2014. If you’re lucky enough to work at a company with “summer Fridays,” that wonderful seasonal tradition of closing the office early on the Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you’re about to head back into the cold reality of the five-day, 40-hour workweek.
But you shouldn’t have to. The concept behind summer Fridays should be a year-round perk, several researchers who study workplace productivity and employee well-being told Science of Us, because giving workers more freedom to decide when and how they work may ultimately result in them getting more done.
Many companies already have a summer hours policy in place, and this provides management with an already tested blueprint showing how permanent flex-time policies—or, even better, some have argued, a shorter workweek—will likely work for their businesses. “If it works well one day a week during the summer, why not make that year-round?” said Jennifer Glass, a University of Texas at Austin sociologist who studies workplace flexibility, in an email. Why not, indeed.
“Summer Fridays” means different things to different organizations, of course, and it’s mostly white-collar, office-type jobs that offer this perk. (Though not always!) One recent survey indicates that up to 30 percent of workplaces offer some version of summer hours, often a response to a lull in business during the summer months. In many organizations, it’s just an informal practice at the moment. But expanding it offers the beginnings of a way to make the American economy more worker-friendly—and most likely without sacrificing productivity.
While occupational researchers have never specifically studied the effects of Summer Fridays, we do know quite a lot about the impact of both shorter workweeks and flex time—that is, allowing workers to define their own hours. Most other developed nations have shorter workweeks than the U.S., according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And as Marketwatch reported earlier this summer, those shorter weeks do not result in lower productivity:
Workplace productivity doesn’t increase with hours worked, the OECD concluded. Workers in Greece clock 2,034 hours a year versus 1,397 in Germany, for example, but the latter’s productivity is 70% higher.
According to that same report, the U.S. is one of the most productive nations on the planet, second only to Luxembourg—but Americans work almost 20 percent more hours than individuals in Luxembourg. We’re working longer days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re achieving more. In fact, the data in the OECD report consistently show that more hours worked do not necessarily correlate with an increase in productivity, giving us reason to think that a little bit of scaling back might not lower our output.
Meanwhile the larger social toll of an overworked population—or even one that feels overworked—are clear. A 2004 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked overtime to poorer overall health, and other research has suggested that working long hours can lead to depression. Not only does that carry a hefty medical tab, it hurts workplace performance: 20 percent of employees who feel overworked report making mistakes at work, according to a 2005 study from the nonprofit research center Families and Work Institute.*
There's no reason to think that a strictly scheduled 40-hour (or 50-hour, or 60-hour ... ) workweek is the best system either for the economy or all of us who constitute it. What we think of as standard today is just a historical holdover that’s very much showing its age, said Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “In the industrial era, we had a notion that, because productivity was essentially on an assembly line, presence equals productivity. If you’re manufacturing things, you have to be present in order to do that,” she said. “And that image of productivity has been very hard to change, even though work isn’t like that anymore.”
Many organizational psychologists study productivity by examining employee “engagement”—a catch-all for happiness, interest, and the like—because these things tend to correlate with how much work an individual gets done. “There’s lots of research out there showing that giving employees a choice of when and how they work ultimately boosts engagement,” said Lisa Horn, co-director of the Workplace Flexibility Initiative at the Society for Human Resource Management. “And when you see higher levels of engagement, you see higher levels of productivity.”
For example, employees report increased engagement when they are able to recover from work stress, either via a weekend or vacation, said Arla Day, a psychologist at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who studies occupational health and stress. Workers who are given adequate recovery time “are less stressed, take less sick time, and are happier with the workplace, which may lead to less absenteeism, lower insurance and medical costs through the organization, and lower turnover, all of which save the organization a lot of money,” Day said. Not to mention, according to a recent Gallup survey, organizations in which employees felt engaged also reported 22 percent higher productivity than companies with lower levels of employee engagement. Time to rest and recharge seems to help us work harder.
At any rate, the people who’ve enjoyed a summer of flex time or fewer hours are probably not going to be super happy when the perk disappears with the season. “I do know from experimental work in social psychology that it is much harder to take something away from people than to never offer it in the first place,” Glass said. “So I imagine employees will grumble about the expectation that things change back to the old ways as summer comes to a close.”
Stretching the spirit of summer Fridays through all four seasons isn’t an outlandish idea; it’s already slowly starting to happen. According to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an estimated 30 percent of Americans already have some form of flex time available to them. This means that these workers are not stuck at work for a prescribed set of hours; they can create their own schedules in order to strike that mythical work-life balance. E. Jeffrey Hill, who studies work-life balance at Brigham Young University, advocates expanding the practice. “Using that flexibility, they might choose any time of the year to work more on some days, and less on other days, depending on workload and personal or family priorities.”
In short: Long live Summer Fridays.
See also: Your Vacation Is About to Disappoint You
*Correction, Sept. 1, 2014: This post originally misidentified the Families and Work Institute as the Family and Work Institute.