The health case for a four-day working week

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 20 April, 2023 - 12:30
Industry news
National News

As a four-day work week is trialled in countries across the globe, health researchers have recently found that holidays – even as short as three-day weekends – are good for employees’ health.

Assessing changes in daily movements before, during and after holidays, researchers at the University of South Australia found that people displayed more active, healthy behaviours when they were on holiday, even when they only had a three-day break.

Across the 13-month study period, people generally took an average two to three holidays, each being around 12 days.

The most common holiday type was ‘outdoor recreation’ (35 per cent), followed by ‘family/social events’ (31 per cent), ‘rest and relaxation’ (17 per cent) and ‘non-leisure pursuits’ such as caring for others or home renovations (17 per cent).

Specifically, the research found that on holiday, people:

  • engaged in 13 per cent more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) each day (or five min/day more)
  • were five per cent less sedentary each day (or 29 min/day less)
  • slept four per cent more each day (or 21 min/day more).

The research indicates that people display healthier behaviours when they are on holiday, said UniSA researcher Dr Ty Ferguson.

“When people go on holiday, they’re changing their everyday responsibilities because they’re not locked down to their normal schedule,” Ferguson said.

“In this study, we found that movement patterns changed for the better when on holiday, with increased physical activity and decreased sedentary behaviour observed across the board.

“We also found that people gained an extra 21 minutes of sleep each day they were on holiday, which can have a range of positive effects on our physical and mental health.

“For example, getting enough sleep can help improve our mood, cognitive function, and productivity. It can also help lower our risk of developing a range of health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression.”

Interestingly, he said the size of these changes increased in line with the length of the holiday – so the longer the holiday, the better the health benefits.

The study used data from the Annual Rhythms in adults’ Lifestyle and health (ARIA) study where 308 adults (mean age 40.4 years) wore fitness trackers 24 hours a day for 13 months. Minute-by-minute movement behaviour data were aggregated into daily totals to compare movement behaviours pre-holiday, during the holiday and post-holiday.

The study offers support for the growing movement for a four-day week, according to UniSA senior researcher Professor Carol Maher.

“A shorter working week is being trialled by companies all over the world. Not surprisingly, employees reported less stress, burnout, fatigue, as well as better mental health and improved work-life balance,” Maher said.

“This study provides empirical evidence that people have healthier lifestyle patterns when they have a short break, such as a three-day weekend.

“This increase in physical activity and sleep is expected to have positive effects on both mental and physical health, contributing to the benefits observed with a four-day work week.

“Importantly, our study also showed that even after a short holiday, people’s increased sleep remained elevated for two weeks, showing that the health benefits of a three-day break can have lasting effects beyond the holiday itself.

“As the world adapts to a new normal, perhaps it’s time to embrace the long weekend as a way to boost our physical and mental health.”