American workers are dreaming of a 4-day workweek. What they really want is balance

Person at work in a darkened office
Only a quarter of U.S.-based employees used all their paid vacation time last year—and nearly half say they worked while they were on vacation.
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The buzz about a shorter workweek as we move into a post-pandemic environment has captured the imagination of America’s workers. A Qualtrics study showed that more than nine out of 10 workers (92%) support a four-day week.

Any business leader living through the most competitive hiring environment in recent memory should be concerned about this statistic. Short-staffed companies in every industry find themselves in a constant race for talent.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there were 5 million more open jobs than unemployed workers. Employees are reconsidering where and how they can make an impact in the most meaningful way to them.

Leaders should not try to avoid this conversation with employees, even if a four-day week seems to be a nonstarter.

The pandemic has highlighted a need for empathy in every part of our lives. Listening to employees’ real needs and taking action to address them is something every leader must do to ensure employees feel heard and that their voice matters.

By deciding not to shy away from this conversation, leaders can take a deeper look at why employees say they want Fridays off: 88% said they want more work-life balance; 79% said they think it would improve their mental health; and 82% said they think they would be more productive.

Those needs strike a familiar chord. They make sense given that workers are spread thin and navigating yet another transition to a new work experience. But when it comes to work-life balance, we also know from our own research that only a quarter of U.S. employees used all of their allotted paid vacation time last year. Nearly half of employees (49%) said they worked while they were on vacation. This means that a four-day week may address the symptoms but won’t solve the root of the issue any more than handing out more vacation time.

Employees themselves don’t see a four-day week as a full solution. Among the 92% of employees who say they’d like a shorter week, the majority (55%) admit that a shorter week would likely frustrate customers and clients. Nearly half (46%) say it would hurt sales and revenue at their company. Almost three-quarters (73%) say that while a four-day week sounds nice, they would have to work longer hours to make up for the lost time.

For most companies, the prospect of hurting revenue and frustrating customers is a deal breaker. They should start with building a culture that values employees’ mental health and wellness and encourages employees to take time away for themselves.

This deeper conversation is more challenging, but it is critical. As leaders, we can’t afford to ignore these concerns or shortcut past them and imagine that a different schedule will fix everything.  

In the same sense that “returning to the office” is about more than simply opening the doors, meeting employees’ needs for more flexibility and empowerment over their workweek is not as simple as canceling Fridays.

Julia Anas is the chief people officer of Qualtrics.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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