Balancing work and life outside of the job can present challenges. Outside of the job, employees may need to respond to family needs and commitments, continuing education, personal interests and goals, and many other items. Providing an employee with strategies to maintain their workplace commitments and productivity while also giving increased latitude to manage outside commitments and interests can be an important non-financial benefit for employers.
One increasingly popular strategy to provide improved work-life balance involves a “compressed work week”. While the exact length of the work day and number of days per week an employee works will vary between industries and between companies, the general concept involves working extended hours during a 4 day work week, rather than a traditional 5 day work week. For example, an employee work from 7am to 6pm (1 hour unpaid lunch) Monday-Thursday, rather than a traditional 8am to 5pm (1 hour unpaid lunch) from Monday-Friday. In both work week designs, 40 working hours per week are achieved, but in the compressed week the employee has each Friday off to balance other needs and interests.
Generally, the reviews on compressed work weeks suggest that employee satisfaction and productivity are improved, and employees do self-report improved work-life balance (1,2). It would seem that this work organizational strategy holds potential to help both employees and employers. However, long term effects of compressed work weeks have not been researched, and the proper structure of a compressed work week is likely dependant on the industry and workplace culture (2).
As a researcher and practitioner in occupational health and wellness, I believe it is important to consider the impact compressed work weeks have on health outcomes. Unfortunately, limited information on these outcomes exist, as most data is self-reported by the employees; there is a need for continued research that tracks objective health measures in office settings (1).
One specific affect that a compressed work week may have is an increased amount of daily seated work. This may impact on movement and physical activity at the workplace, and also limit the amount of time available for leisure time physical activity.
EWI Works has recently reviewed the importance of workplace and leisure time physical activity on a variety of health-related outcomes (our Emerging Topics in Ergonomics Seminar on May 15th, 2014 presented this review). The results show that regular regimented physical activity outside of work is a key first step for employees, but sedentary behaviors at the office also present risk and “undo” some the gains achieved by outside exercise. For this reason, increasing daily movement at work is also required to achieve appropriate health outcomes. For example, low to moderate intensity walking, for short 30 sec-2 minute bouts, every 45-60 minutes, during a workday might be recommended. Research shows that reducing daily sedentary behaviors in addition to having a regular exercise program improves health outcomes more effectively than outside exercise on its own (3).
With this in mind, we must consider how a compressed work week might impact on daily sedentary time (ie: sitting at the office) and time available for physical activity. The use of compressed work weeks can be a benefit to an employee, but they must take care to:
1) Maintain regular breaks
2) Ensure regular movement and micro breaks to walk are used
3) Outside physical activity remains a part of their lives
Increased time pressures and total daily workload during a compressed work week can reduce opportunities to take short movement breaks. Furthermore, working longer work days may present some issues for commitments outside work. For example, daily interaction and responsibilities for family and child care.
A common approach employees will take with a compressed work week is to skip their breaks and eat lunch while they work. By working through all of their breaks, they complete the total amount of work they are prescribed earlier and they can cut out 1-1.5 hours of their extended workday. In the example of a 7am to 6pm (1 hour unpaid lunch) from Monday-Thursday compressed work week, by skipping lunch and breaks this would mean the employee could leave at 4:30 to 5pm. However, this approach would adversely affect movement at work and may also increase exposure to various postural and visual risk factors. Furthermore, each workday would result in greater fatigue, and therefore decrease motivation to partake in leisure time physical activity.
If an organization wishes to offer a compressed work week option, it can be a benefit to employee satisfaction and work-life balance, but we must start to consider the health effects.
Policies to promote proper break periods should be a part of compressed work week environments. Furthermore, the workplace should be designed and organized in a way to promote movement and activity during the workday. This, of course, will depend on the workplace design and nature of the work. These factors can be considered as part of an ergonomics review and subsequent development of a company-specific workplace movement guideline.
We would like to hear what you think of compressed work week schedules. Please let us know in the comments below.
1. Bambra C, Whitehead M, Sowden A, Akers J, Petticrew M. “A hard day‘s night?’’ The effects of Compressed Working Week interventions on the health and work-life balance of shift workers: a systematic review. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2008;62(9):764-77.
2. Brough P, O‘Driscoll MP. Organizational interventions for balancing work and home demands: An overview. Work & Stress. 2010;24(3):280-97.
3. Kozey Keadle S, Lyden K, Staudenmayer J, Hickey A, Viskochil R, Braun B, et al. The independent and combined effects of exercise training and reducing sedentary behavior on cardiometabolic risk factors. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2014:1-11.