Rethinking the Shorter Work Week: Why Job Quality Matters More Than Job Quantity

publishedalmost 2 years ago
6 min read

By now we’re all well aware of the mental health crisis facing today’s workers. Many employers have added new benefits to help alleviate these issues, from mental health support to flexible work arrangements. However, some companies have recognized that one of the root causes of this issue is employee burnout from working too many hours.

This is an especially significant problem among remote workers, who often struggle to keep their personal and professional lives separate. And it’s an issue that organizations are desperate to address, as employees continue to quit their jobs en masse as part of the great resignation.

Some companies are focusing on reversing the widespread cultural issues that have led to today’s “always on” workplace. However, a few are going a step further by experimenting with a shorter work week. Typically, this means a reduction in hours equating to around 4 days a week of work instead of 5 (i.e., 32 hours instead of 40).

It’s estimated that only 15% of U.S. organizations offer a work week of 32 hours or less to all employees. One notable example is Amazon, which piloted a 30-hour work week for its employees at 75% of their salary. And in a study conducted in Iceland, employees who worked 5 hours less per week (at the same pay) were able to maintain the same level of productivity while improving their well-being.

However, new research conducted by a coalition of universities questions the effectiveness of using reduced hours as the sole means of improving employee well-being. Specifically, the researchers aimed to “contribute to the current debates about a shorter working week by examining the relative impact of job quality and job quantity on employees’ mental health.”

The study, aptly titled What matters more for employees’ mental health: job quality or job quantity?, raises an intriguing question — one that I’ll explore in this week’s article. Let’s start by examining what we already know about how job quantity and job quality independently affect people’s mental health. Then I’ll share what the researchers found about the link between these two factors, and which one is more important for workers’ mental health.

The link between job quantity and mental health: what we know

A large body of research demonstrates a clear link between the number of hours people work and their mental health. The study’s authors described two primary areas that have been explored: the effects of under-employment (working too few hours) and the effects of over-employment (working too many hours).

Under-employment can affect people’s mental health in several ways. First, those who are working too few hours are more likely to be struggling financially, which we know can cause a great deal of stress. They’re also likely to be missing out on key benefits like PTO, healthcare, and retirement savings matching.

Part-time workers also lack many of the social and career benefits of full-time employment. They often have fewer opportunities for social interaction, lower self-esteem, and their status among their peers may be lower due to their under-employment. Furthermore, part-time workers typically don’t have the same opportunities for career advancement, and their schedules tend to be more unpredictable. All of these factors can contribute to worsened mental health.

But what about people on the other end of the spectrum — those who are over-employed (i.e., working more hours than they’d like)? This topic has been extensively covered lately, especially as it relates to remote workers. By now I think we’re all aware that being overworked can lead to burnout, exhaustion, and mental health problems like depression. It also can have a significant effect on people’s relationships, not to mention their physical health and well-being.

The link between job quality and mental health: what we know

Now that we’ve examined the link between hours worked and mental health, let’s take a look at job quality. As you might expect, an employee’s overall job quality is the sum of many parts. The study’s authors described factors like earnings, skills use, autonomy, employee voice or participation in the organization, the physical environment, the social environment, job prospects, scheduling and flexibility, work intensity, and meaningfulness of the work.

All of these job characteristics have been extensively researched and written about, so we won’t get into them in this article. But I do want to emphasize that what we’re really talking about here is whether an individual’s job meets their needs as a whole human. That includes their fundamental needs to make a living and to feel safe and secure, their needs for connection, and their needs for growth and self-actualization.

Many of these needs are met (at least partially) through people’s jobs or how they make a living. And whether or not these needs are met can have a clear impact on mental health and well-being. However, what the researchers wanted to understand was whether job quality matters more than job quantity — so let’s take a look at what they uncovered.

Job quality versus job quantity: which matters more?

There is very little research on how the interaction between job quantity and job quality affects workers’ health, and that’s precisely why the researchers sought to explore this connection further. They assessed job quantity by asking respondents to indicate the number of hours they work and whether they feel they’re working too many or too few hours. Job quality was measured by eight different job quality indexes.

Then, the researchers “examined the relationship between job quantity and mental health controlling for a wide range of socio-demographic characteristics and non-work activities, and then added the eight job quality indicators into the model to explore the relative importance of job quantity and these job quality indexes.”

Not such a simple task, of course — but clearly worth the effort. Here are the four key findings of the study:

  1. Job quality plays a much more important role than job quantity in employees’ mental health: “Our results suggest that in general there are no significant differences between different working hour categories in terms of mental health, and there is also no optimum number of working hours at which employees’ mental health is at its highest.” It’s a fascinating finding, one that challenges a lot of what we think we know about the shorter work week.
  2. Job quality makes a considerable difference to employees’ mental health: “In our study most job quality indexes were highly significant. […] doing meaningful and useful work, having a positive relationship with colleagues, and low work intensity are particularly important for employees’ mental health.” Interestingly, however, earnings were found to have a non-significant effect on mental health.
  3. The negative effects of under-employment become marginal and non-significant when people work in a job characterized by high levels of skill/discretion or prospects: Simply put, good job quality can compensate for nearly all of the negative effects of under-employment. However, the authors noted that working too many hours (over-employment) has negative effects on mental health — regardless of job quality.
  4. The importance of job quality generally remains similar across different working hour categories for employees: This means that people can obtain mental health benefits from good job characteristics, regardless of how many hours they work. The authors also emphasized that “Working more than 40 hours per week has significantly larger negative effects on mental health compared to full-time work; however, these effects are largely explained by their poor job quality.”

Implications for employers

The researchers described how their study might impact decision-making at both the policy and organizational level. Here, I’ll focus on three key suggestions for business leaders to consider.

  • Focus on job quality before you implement a shorter work week. Reducing work hours doesn’t automatically mean that your employees will benefit from improved mental health. In fact, reducing people’s hours could actually worsen their well-being if they continue to experience poor job quality while also receiving a lower salary. So focus on job characteristics first, and you may find that a reduction in hours isn’t even needed.
  • Boost job quality for those who are under-employed. The authors noted that improving job quality for part-time employees could go a long way toward improving their mental health. I’ve written about why businesses should offer flexibility and PTO for hourly workers, and there are other steps you can take as well — from offering greater autonomy to ensuring that these team members feel included in your organization.
  • Continue to work on eliminating excessively long hours. This new research confirmed what many previous studies have found: that working long hours (over 40 hours per week) has a negative effect on employees’ mental health. So remember, even if you take steps to improve job quality for your workforce, it’s still critical that their work hours fall within a normal range.

I hope this article sheds new light on the important topic of mental health at work. Thanks for reading, and be sure to
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