Saying a shorter work week saves lives might sound like a desperate argument made to one’s HR department to justify an extra lie-in. But the authors of a study presented in August to the Sharjah Executive Council would agree with that conclusion. Last year, they claim, after the emirate became the first in the UAE (and one of the first jurisdictions in the world) to introduce a four-day week for public sector offices and schools, the decision led to a remarkable 40 per cent reduction in road accidents and deaths in eight months.
Sharjah’s move was made at the same time as a nationwide decision to move to a 4.5-day work week for federal government staff, with Friday being made a half day. Now, authorities have announced that, from July 1, federal government employees can request a four day work week, on a case-by-case basis and depending on work needs.
Besides a reduction in road deaths, other benefits from the UAE’s experience with shorter working weeks have been more prosaic – but no less appreciated by those living there. A month into Sharjah’s new normal, the emirate’s residents told a reporter from The National the move led to more family and leisure time for workers and more trade for the service industry, which relies on its customers having more free time. Having Fridays off also offers religious Muslim residents greater opportunity for enjoying Islam’s holy day with their loved ones.
Myriad studies around the world support the idea of a workforce shifting to shorter work weeks. A particularly famous pair of studies involving 1 per cent of Iceland’s total workforce found that productivity was maintained or increased when hours were cut, and well-being was improved significantly.
Since the development of technologies that allow for remote work, labour laws and practices have been developed to allow for more flexible working. The new measures for federal government workers mean a shorter work week can be achieved by compressing, rather than cutting, standard working expectations. The new rules allow government workers to shift to four days only if they can maintain their regular 40 working hours in that time, and contingent on the approval of their managers. Updated labour regulations rolled out in November 2021 gave a similar option to the private sector, provided both the employee and employer agreed.
Although compressed work weeks lead to longer days for those who choose them (10 hours in four days, rather than eight hours in five), there is plenty of evidence that workers generally prefer them. One study of 1,000 American workers by Cornerstone, an HR technology firm, found that nearly 90 per cent of respondents believe three-day weekends are better for stress relief than longer vacations. And a study this year by the University of South Australia found that three-day breaks offer health benefits by giving people a chance to get more physical activity and sleep into their lifestyles.
While the latest measures build on ones that have been in place for nearly two years, they are a powerful statement of the federal government’s renewed endorsement of work-life balance. In time, they may also help to encourage more widespread acceptance in workplaces around the world of the idea that workers are at their best when they are at their happiest.