Carlos Slim, the CEO of telecom company Telmex and the world’s second-richest man, told the audience at a business conference that we need a “radical overhaul” of the way we work that should include instituting a three-day workweek.
“With three work days a week, we would have more time to relax; for quality of life,” he said. “Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.”
The tradeoffs would be longer hours — he suggested putting in as many as 11 hours a day — and working later into life, with a call to push the retirement age back to 70 or 75. He said these changes would make the labor force more productive while also making it healthier and addressing the retirement crisis many workers face later in life. It’s not clear if the health benefits would be true for people who work physically demanding jobs, however, such as construction or factory work that can be tough on the body, especially later in life.
He’s already started to test his theories out. At Telmex, where workers are eligible to retire at age 50, he’s offered a voluntary plan where workers continue working after that but only for four days a week.
Others have similarly experimented with reducing work hours in the hopes that it will make workers more productive. The city of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest, has implemented six-hour workdays at the same pay for a group of municipal workers with the expectation that it will mean they become more efficient and take fewer days off for illness, with a control group at regular hours to test the idea out. Here in the U.S., some companies are trying new models as well. The online education company Treehouse has a four-day workweek while paying its employees the same as it would for a five-day week. The founders say it’s meant that the work is of a higher quality, employees are more motivated, and the company is better able to recruit talent while sales have remained strong.
Workweeks are limited countrywide in other places, although no one comes close to Slim’s suggested three-day week. In the European Union, collective bargaining agreements have limited the workweek, which was an average of 38 hours in 2012, and those countries also have laws capping the week at 48 hours at the most, with some topping out at 40.
There’s reason to think that workers who put in less time actually generate more. The world’s most productive workers clock fewer hours: for example, German workers put in about 1,400 hours a year while Greek workers put in 2,000, yet German workers are 70 percent more productive. Meanwhile, research has found that putting in more than 60 hours a week increases productivity at first but the benefits disappear after three or four weeks, and others have backed up the idea that any short-term boost quickly dissipates.
Except for some American companies experimenting with shorter hours, however, the United States hasn’t begun to take advantage of these potential benefits. Out of 33 developed countries, we’re number 11 in how many hours we put in each week, while virtually all professional workers are working 50 hours or more and nearly half are clocking 65 and above. And while all countries have been reducing work hours over the last 40 years, we’re far behind other countries.
One small step has been taken toward a shorter workweek: President Obama issued an executive order in March that will make sure more workers are covered by overtime laws, requiring their companies to pay them time and a half for more than 40 hours of work a week. That could incentivize employers to start bringing the week back down to that level for everyone.