The psychological impact of the UAE's new working week

Different days of the week affect our mood, even our health

School is one of the first places people develop associations with days of the week. AP
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Since January 1, the UAE's public sector has had a new working week, with much of the rest of the country expected to follow suit. The new schedule is Monday to Thursday with a half-day on Friday. This will bring a new weekend and a shorter working week for many people.

It is not the first time the weekend has had a makeover. Back in 2006, when I first arrived in the UAE, it shifted from Thursday-Friday, to Friday-Saturday. Far more radical changes have occurred at other times and in other places. For example, in France, shortly after the 1789 revolution, a 10-day week was introduced with a one-day weekend (decadi). Fortunately, this revolutionary calendar with its nine-day working week never caught on.

Whichever way we choose to slice time, the days of the week become more than just names or numbers on a calendar. Each day has its own meaning; this can be a personal association or one the broader community shares. For example, as a child I detested Sundays. It was the last day of the weekend; it symbolised the end of fun, the end of good TV. It meant early to bed and school the next day. I was never a huge fan of Monday either. In fact, everyone I knew hated Mondays, a sentiment immortalised by the Irish pop group, The Boomtown Rats, in their 1979 hit song I don't like Mondays.

In the UK, dislike of Mondays was further implanted in the popular imagination by the bogus idea of "Blue Monday". Its origins are tied to a winter-sun promotional campaign by an unscrupulous travel company. Blue Monday is claimed to be the unhappiest day of the year, falling on the last Monday of the last full week of January, supposedly a good time to get away.

Unhappy Mondays are a feature of life in the UAE, too, at least for some people. A few years ago, I worked with talented data scientist Dr Amna Al Shehhi on a study we published in the journal Big Data in 2019. Our study used an algorithm known as "hedonometer 2.0", designed to measure "happiness" or, more accurately, expressions of positive sentiment. Our data set included over 17 million tweets by residents of the UAE between 2013 and 2017. When looking at Arabic tweets, Sunday was the most miserable day of the week. However, Monday was the least happy when analysing the English tweets. We suspect many English-speaking Twitter users brought their historic dislike of Mondays to the UAE. Friday was the happiest day in both languages.

Beyond pleasant and unpleasant feelings, Monday also shows up as a particularly deadly day of the week in many nations. Data from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a spike in heart-attack deaths on Mondays. An international review study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology concurs. After reviewing 27 previous studies, the authors concluded that: "The incidence of sudden cardiac death is markedly increased on Monday, similar for men and women, and for individuals below and above 65 years of age." One possible contributor to the Monday increase in cardiac deaths is the work-leisure cycle. Activities such as weekend binge drinking and even watching football matches are cited as possible precursors or precipitating triggers to Monday cardiac events.

A similar pattern of mortality emerges when we look at the data for suicide. A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2016 examined England's suicide data over 15 years. The study identified Monday as the day of the week people most frequently took their lives. This finding has been explained as the "new beginning" hypothesis, the idea that people are more likely to become suicidal at the transition into a new time period: the start of a new week, the beginning of a new year. Almost like a line in the sand: "if things haven't improved by next week, they never will."

Understanding the association between disease, days of the week and even emotional distress can be helpful. For example, we can use such information to improve cardiac care, inform patient discharge planning and suicide prevention strategies. Additionally, understanding the work-leisure cycle and the meanings behind days of the week can help us fine tune social policy and public health initiatives.

The Germans have an excellent word (they always do), "zeitgeber", meaning time-giver. Zeitgebers are external or environmental cues, such as light and dark, heat and cold, which help reset and regulate our biological rhythms – our body clocks. I see the days of the week as psychological zeitgebers; they reset our moods and help regulate our emotional clocks.

For people who grew up in the UAE, Monday probably has generally neutral associations. However, now that Monday signals the start of the working week – the end of the weekend – it may begin to take on a new emotional significance. Whichever way these recent changes play out, a shorter working week – an extended weekend – is generally very welcome.

Published: January 09, 2022, 4:00 AM
Updated: January 12, 2022, 3:21 PM