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Mind Your Health

It's May - Mental Health Awareness Month! Let's break the silence and shine a light on the essential aspects of our wellbeing.

Unpacking The Benefits Of A 4 Day Work Week & Addressing Mental Health: Insights From Dr. Dale Whelehan, CEO Of 4 Day Week Global

Dr. Dale Whelehan is a behavioral scientist, thought leader, and advocate for the adoption of a four-day workweek to improve employee wellbeing, increase productivity, and even reduce carbon emissions. He is the CEO of 4 Day Week Global, a firm that helps organizations transition to a shorter workweek while maintaining or improving business outcomes and productivity.

Dr. Whelehan has a diverse background and has worked with organizations across various industries, including technology, healthcare, and finance. Before joining the 4 Day Week Global as CEO, Dr. Dale gained experience as a performance consultant at Deloitte, enabling large-scale organizational change based on behavioral science. With a Ph.D. in Surgical Performance under the sub-discipline of Behavioral Science, Dr. Dale has seen firsthand the impacts of fatigue in the healthcare industry

Dr. Dale’s interest in the four-day workweek stems from his belief that traditional working patterns are outdated and no longer serve the needs of employees or employers. He advocates for a shorter workweek as a means to improve work-life balance, reduce stress and burnout, and increase employee engagement and job satisfaction.

In addition to his work with 4 Day Week Global, Dr. Dale is also a lecturer and academic who has written extensively on the benefits of a shorter workweek. He is a sought-after speaker and has delivered talks on the topic at conferences and events globally.

Overall, Dr. Whelehan’s expertise in organizational change and his passion for creating more sustainable and equitable working environments make him a leading voice and a subject-matter expert in the movement toward a shorter workweek eventually boosting people’s happiness and wellbeing.

Today, we’re delighted and honored to share a conversation with Dr. Dale and to share his insights. Join us to learn more about his thoughts on how work can impact our wellbeing, and what can we do to improve the situation around mental health and wellbeing.

There are several 4-day workweek experiments taking place across the world, including the latest trial in the UK, which found significant positive impacts on wellbeing. Employees reported 48% more job satisfaction and 71% less burnout. Therefore, it is safe to say that the four-day workweek is here. Which one of these experiments or outcomes was the most intriguing to you, and what was the biggest takeaway from these trials?

Yes, you are correct. I think the four-day week has arrived; it is no longer coming. We now have thousands of companies trying a four-day week or implementing it as a long-term strategy. Many countries have also adopted different forms of the model to reduce the stress of the five-day workweek. When we at 4Day Week Global started as an organization, this was very much seen as a fringe topic. However, it is now a normal part of day-to-day conversations in work and society.

The pilots that I find most interesting are the ones that were conducted in Iceland. They shifted a significant number of their population to a reduced working hour model, including their public sector.

A particularly interesting example from that pilot was healthcare, where there is a global crisis with regard to healthcare improvement. They hired additional staff and offered reduced working hours to their current staff. In doing so, they were able to keep up recruitment and retention, and break the cycle of overworking, which resulted in increased levels of burnout in a system that is already working at its capacity. Therefore, I think the intervention of a four-day week is beneficial, regardless of resources. On the downside, many organizations with insufficient resources are overspending money on things like recruitment, retention, absenteeism, or presenteeism.

The most startling finding for me in our current studies with 4 Day Week Global, where we had 60 companies in the UK, was that it’s ultimately better for everyone. It was previously seen as something that was only good for employees, for their stress, mental health, and happiness.

But there’s a ripple effect on productivity within an organization and ultimately the bottom line, which is revenue growth for many companies. We saw an increase in revenue growth with this working hour model, so it seems that happier and healthier people perform better at work, which is ultimately better for business. When businesses work better for their people, it has a better impact on society. We also observed disproportionate benefits for women at work, where there have traditionally been many issues with gender. Also, from a sustainability point of view, our smaller pilot scale study in the US and Ireland suggests that when you have more time, you’re much more likely to engage in more pro-sustainable behaviors, such as using public transport instead of private modes of transport.

The most significant shift in work life that the pandemic brought to all of us is remote work. For instance, a couple of years ago remote work wasn’t a thing across many sectors that are heavily operating remotely today. Similarly, what will be the biggest breakthrough when it comes to a four-day workweek, and what should we be prepared for?

It’s actually changing the fundamental idea that productivity should be based on the quality as opposed to the quantity of output and that many organizations default to time as their productivity metric when, in fact, we know that time is not a very good assessment of how productive someone is in work. So, that would be the fundamental shift, and aligned with that, then, is that people realize that once they’re happy at work, they can be happy outside of work and vice versa. This idea of work-life balance doesn’t sit right with me because the work-life balance has been completely disrupted by the pandemic. We are no longer in a situation where we commute to work and are able to segregate work from our personal lives. We live in a connected world now, and technology doesn’t allow us to simply disconnect. So we should be able to learn how to manage this new environment. And, one of those things is giving people permission to not be switched on at work.

According to you, how can we bring the effects of this model beyond white and blue-collar jobs? For example, most of the experiments around the four-day workweek are conducted on administration and government jobs. So, how will labor-intensive sectors such as construction and logistics be impacted by this? Will they benefit from it, as more time may be needed even if the workers are productive while constructing a building, for example? So, how does this model fit across sectors?

The four-day week is a catchphrase we operate under a trademark principle of 4 Day Week Global called 181,00. So, 100% pay, 80% time, 100% productivity. It’s based on a fundamental scientific principle that we aren’t productive for eight hours of the workday. We’re actually productive for about 2.5 to 3.5 hours of the day. Some of the other time we spend at work reduces our optimal level of productivity for days after that because we’re fatigued and burned out.

I counter the argument by saying that organizations demanding their workforce to work for five days are not productive for five days, and there is a basic biological and physiological mechanism at play. If you can reduce the number of hours they work, they will get more done, as counterintuitive as that may seem.

This works in those other sectors by having some staff work Monday to Thursday, while others work Tuesday to Friday to keep business demands necessary in construction. It might mean shortening the workday to last for five days. Or, if you work in an organization with peaks and troughs in your work, you could do a five-day workweek for one week and then a three-day week during the lows in your work period. We’re always trying to find the balance of how to use our model based on your business or service needs.

How could the equation of 80% work and 100% pay be necessarily profitable for businesses? You did mention the positive impacts like hiring and retaining talent – but are there also outcomes that reflect beyond these factors from a business perspective? Could you shed some light so businesses can fully understand how this works?

Yes, as I mentioned, the principle we operate under is 100-80-100 hundred. You are only guaranteed 80% time in return for 100% productivity. As part of our pilot programs, we establish a baseline level of productivity within an organization and use that as the foundation to measure the effectiveness of our policy. If productivity is reducing in reaction to reduced working hours, we ask why. If productivity is increasing, which is what we have seen more in the evidence, it suggests that the five-day workweek was not our optimal level of productivity. The pilot is great because it provides a psychologically safe environment for organizations to trial and error on some of these issues and understand what productivity means for their organization.

Many organizations have never had that hard conversation with themselves. They want to drive business, and this is the way in which you figure that out.

Organizations spend a lot of time trying to become more lean and agile, and more positive, but they fail in those endeavors or fail to realize the potential of those endeavors because they don’t bring employees on board in a way that is of positive benefit for the employees themselves.

There is a huge amount of – “We’re going to become more lean and agile so that we can grow.” But all the employee hears is, “I just need to become more efficient because I’m going to have more work.”

Instead, the conversation should be, “We’re going to become more lean and agile, and in return, you will get more time off.” That shift builds a psychological contract between the employer and the employee in a way that has not existed in the history of work.

I totally agree. I think this shift is going to be challenging, especially for organizations. With firsthand experience in the tech industry, I’m concerned that the definition of agile has slipped into a ‘no-break-keep-delivering’ culture. So, there is a vicious cycle of burnout that you could constantly feel, which brings me to the next question.

One in four people is suffering from untreated mental illness. Not all of us may realize that we are actually experiencing anxiety, burnout, or depression and may need help. What are the red flags to recognize both at work and in life? And how do we tackle them?

This is something that fascinates me a lot. I did my Ph.D. exploring the impact of fatigue among healthcare workers, and I’ve always been quite interested in the conversation that happens around mental health. After doing my Ph.D., I went and worked in corporate for The Big 4, and now I’m obviously involved in this movement. Indeed, we need to have better conversations around some of the terminologies.

Similar to how many organizations brainwash from a sustainability point of view, I think organizations do mental health washing, doing huge amounts of effort to improve the mental health of their organizations with yoga classes, health programs, and all these sorts of things. But despite that, burnouts are very high in some industries. That’s because they’re not getting to the root of the organizational issues that are causing a toxic work culture.

Often, those toxic work cultures are facilitated by overworking, toxic leadership, and toxic co-workers. So, a four-day week addresses the root causes of insufficient productivity and all those sorts of things within organizations. Organizations have to go through that transformation to get a four-day week, and organizations that aren’t interested in their employees won’t try a four-day week because they won’t see the merits of the potential benefits because they only think about revenue or themselves and their own ego.

So, I think burnout is an issue for organizations, and it’s an occupational disease. It’s caused by organizations, not by people. That’s where there has been a blurring in the conversation around burnout because there’s been a disproportionate amount of blame put on individuals and burnout.

There is another kind of phenomenon happening in the workplace, which is fatigue. It is a normal emotional response to experiencing a high load of work. But you can manage fatigue in day-to-day life by taking sufficient rest during the day, for example.

And then the last one is depression and anxiety. You can have depression and anxiety:

  • because of work
  • because of feeling unmotivated in your work
  • if your work isn’t fulfilling for you
  • if you’re being bullied

But you can also have depression and anxiety not because of work – that can feed into your work as well.

The pandemic has raised the number of mental health conditions within society because we all underwent an existential crisis over the last few years, and we’ve undergone a lot of trauma that we have not resolved.

And I don’t think many workplaces have made sufficient efforts to try and support their workers to recover from what was a very traumatic experience. Rather we’re just expected to be out of the pandemic and to go about our day-to-day lives. Everything has fundamentally changed, so I think organizations have a duty to care and support staff who are undergoing problems due to societal impacts and not worsen the situation by causing mental health issues.

So, what are the practical actions that managers and leaders need to take in order to create a positive culture, combat burnout, and not create a toxic environment? For example, even taking small breaks between meetings can help focus better and reduce stress significantly.

Yeah, it’s a shift in leadership away from a transactional form of leadership, which is present in many organizations, to one of more conscious leadership. So, actually shifting your focus away from just the bottom line and focusing on people, making sure your people are happy and healthy.

And it is a significant shift for organizations to undergo because there’s a difference between managers and leaders. Managers set deadlines and do other things, but leaders are people who are setting new behaviors. They’re bringing this organization to a place where it needs to go and setting up a new culture. That doesn’t have to be just senior management; a really good leader will build leadership at all levels in the organization and create a transformational form of leadership. So, modeling the right behaviors, checking in with staff constantly, and allowing your organization to feel how people are doing and what can be done better, what is a more effective way to get our work done. It has to be a collective buy-in from the staff to figure out how to make this work as well, not just top-down from management.

We used to be consumed by PowerPoints, and now we’re consumed by meetings. Things that used to be solvable in two minutes now take 20 minutes in a meeting mainly because people are constantly interrupting and talking over each other. We should use technology as a tool, not as a barrier to productivity. Instead of not taking your break and spending time trying to figure out how to make it work, set boundaries and be deliberate about signing off at a certain time. And when you sign off, the expectation is that you live by that expectation. So, it’s more about behaviors.

And we need to bring behavioral change and conscious leadership across all levels, not just the executives and C-suite.

Yes, and I think not enough people who get into senior levels in organizations learn the skills required to lead. There is a huge focus on project management, lean and agile training, and all that sort of stuff, but not enough on challenging the status quo.

That is so true. It’s important to have an open mind toward new leadership styles that bring new concepts to the table.

You know, women who are full-time employed are nearly twice as likely to have common mental health problems compared to men. 19.8% of women suffer from mental health issues and 10.9% of men face such problems. Why do you think this is still the case, and what should we do as a society?

It’s a really good question and something that I’ve been quite passionate about, particularly over the last few years. I was doing my research on surgeons, and it’s a very patriarchal and male-dominated environment. We are seeing more women entering surgery, but what I noticed was that women were working more than their male colleagues. Sadly, these female colleagues had to work harder to get into leadership positions, face a lot of misogyny, and work in a difficult environment compared to their counterparts.

One of the issues is that the system is set up for men, and there is a lot of unconscious and hidden bias within organizational and societal psychology. Despite discussing this issue for the past 10 years, we still see gender bias in recruitment and promotion. I think this is because the lines are not clear on what productivity looks like in an organization and what determines success.

A four-day workweek is disproportionately benefiting women because it makes the environment clearer. Women are then able to achieve success in the same way as their male colleagues, if not better. I think a 4-day workweek is a fundamental revolution in building gender equality at work, and it can help address some of the reasons why women experience mental health issues in the workplace, such as toxic cultures and leadership.

Traditionally, women will want to work part-time to raise kids. Still, a fundamental shift in society is needed to build more gender equality around parenting, which can hopefully shift the dial somewhat. Societal policy changes need to happen to make paternity and maternity leave more accessible across the world. Work and organizations have a role in building this conversation as well.

I think as a society we need to question a lot of narratives that have been told and at the same time, governments and policymakers should also pay attention to the changing dynamics of life and foster changes that will positively impact households and families.

Work has been a huge part of our identities. What we do as men and women have been defining our lives to quite some extent. Naturally, we are drawn to pursue meaning and happiness in life from work. Now that we are trying to shorten the work week, plus AI is here to redefine work – how can we find true happiness, purpose, and a sense of self beyond our work? What is your take on that?

So, I think finding purpose in life is the biggest thing we could do to achieve happiness and health, and you can find it no matter what socioeconomic background you come from or any of those sorts of things. People find purpose, whether they’re rich, poor, or whatever background. And I think there are two things.

First, there’s a predisposition. Some people are born more optimistic than others, but there’s a certain percentage, about 40%, that we have to play with. So, we have determinants over the success of our own lives and leading a life that makes meaning to us. From that, too many people are stuck in a paradigm where they just work themselves to the bone. They are trying to strive and achieve something that doesn’t actually achieve and give them any form of happiness, and for many, that’s just money. They want to earn as much money as quickly as possible. They spend their money on material things that give them a quick boost, but ultimately it doesn’t fill a deep longing for something in life.

How people get purpose is when they make a positive impact on society and on the people around them. That’s what the science shows. It’s not about making a positive impact for me; it’s feeling like I’m connected to a bigger cause in life. And I’m very lucky to have worked in different settings that facilitated that. In the past, I worked as a physiotherapist, and as a researcher in burnout. Now I work in this global movement, which is very purposeful by nature.

But if you work in a corporate job or a job where maybe that purpose isn’t as clear-cut, you need to find something in your life that’s going to give you purpose. For example, if you’re working in the stock markets on Wall Street, that’s probably not going to make you very happy. But instead, maybe you really enjoy raising your children, with the four-day workweek you now have three days to raise your child. Maybe you like to volunteer or be a part of a sports group. These are the things that make people want to live and get up from bed in the morning.

Having the feeling of being needed by someone or something.

Yeah, recently Harvard just finished another research, and they did a longitudinal study of what makes people happy. According to this study, the main factor that makes people happy is – connection. You can get connections in many forms. It doesn’t have to be work-related. So, I think the four-day week movement helps you make that choice. Our founders share a beautiful quote on this – “We’re lucky as organizations to get to borrow time from people’s lives”. And so, we’re very conscious about how we use that time that people have, and that’s a completely different mindset than actually how many organizations think, which is that you should be grateful that you’re hired by us. So yeah, it’s about giving people autonomy to choose and to self-determine their own livelihood and happiness.

Well, it was lovely talking to you, Dr.Dale. We really appreciate the time you took to share your insights with AlignThoughts. Take care!