Can Anyone Actually Afford To Work Three Days A Week?

A new research report has found a three-day working week translates to healthier and more productive employees, particularly in the over-40s demographic. Apparently, a part-time job provides the best balance between keeping the brain active and living a happy, stress-free existence. It sounds pretty great, but who can actually afford to only work three days a week? We analyse the statistics.

Happy worker image from Shutterstock

A new research report published by the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Business & Economics has found the cognitive performance of middle-aged people tends to decrease at the 25-hour mark in any given work week. The results, which analysed the working habits of 3000 men and 3500 women in Australia, suggests that most of us would be better employees if we only worked part time. As the paper explains:

"Our findings show that there is a non-linearity in the effect of working hours on cognitive functioning. For working hours up to around 25 hours a week, an increase in working hours has a positive impact on cognitive functioning. However, when working hours exceed 25 hours per week, an increase in working hours has a negative impact on cognition. Interestingly, there is no statistical difference in the effects of working hours on cognitive functioning between men and women."

The report goes on to suggest that "too much work" can have adverse effects on cognitive functioning due to mounting fatigue and stress. Older adults are thus advised to restrict their working hours to 25–30 hours per week for a positive impact on cognition.

These findings will be sure to please plenty of employers in Australia. Over the past few years, employment trends have been shifting towards a part-time workforce. Approximately 11.9 million Australians are currently employed, which is the largest number on record. However, just 8.2 million of these workers are employed full-time, which is the lowest level on record. You do the math.

Personally, we think there are a few notable flaws in this report, not the least of which is living expenses in Australia. While some older Australians can doubtlessly afford to reduce their working hours, the majority simpy lack the required affluence.

According to the Australian Bureau Of Statistics (ABS), the average weekly wage in Australia is $1136. To simplify matters, let's call that the median -- we strongly doubt that many Australians on the wrong side of $1136 a week could afford to live comfortably after slashing their income by more than a third. Older Aussies who don't own their own home would find it extremely difficult.

We imagine it's also a tough sell for most high-income earners. Ironically, those who make enough money to pull this off usually have too many managerial responsibilities and projects in the pipeline to even think about reducing their work hours.

Even if employers were open to the idea, the reduction in salary and job security would almost certainly cause a spike in stress, leading to unhappy and distracted workers. We'd basically be back at square one.

You can check out the full report below.

The Effect of Working Hours on Cognitive Ability [Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series]


    Depends on how its set up. You could do three 12 hour shifts and broadly be as productive as five 8 hour shifts.

    My father helped redesign shiftwork where he worked back in the 90's, where they went from 3 x 8 hour shifts to 12 hour shifts. Schedule was so good, they averaged their 38 hours, never worked more than 3 shifts in a row, and got a 7 day break guaranteed every quarter so essentially doubled their annual leave.

    Longer shifts can work, its just a matter of setting it up right.

      There were trials at one point of 40-hour four-day weeks so you had three day weekends. Two teams would alternate so you had a Monday to Thursday shift and a Tuesday to Friday shift so the normal five-day work week was covered for contact reasons. It was a recommended move based on the same reduction of stress and increase of work-life balance reasons. I thought it was a great idea but it never came to fruition and the report was at least five years old now.

        In this day and age, where we have moved so far away from the classic 9-5 mentality, I expect it will be considered more and more. Where I am we work on flexi time, so can already do that 10 hour shift every day so its really more a cultural thing than anything else here.

        I could work 7-5 every day (more likely 8-6), and build the flexi needed to take every Friday (or Monday, or whatever day I wanted) every week. I think a few people do.

        I just remember with my dad that the DID restructure to build less shifts, and did such a brilliant job with it that it surprised me more places didnt copy their process. Steelworker, but anywhere open 7 days should be able to do the same shift rotation to get that 3 month balance.

          Probably because the support crew (and exec team) still had to come in 5 days a week 9-5, so they would get narky. "If I have to come in - so does everyone else"

            That was one of the benefits for dad's work. For starters, they were open 24 hour, so the whinging exec issue (nice one btw) wasnt so relevant, and second, it cut back the support crew requirement significantly, leading to decent savings on admin.

            The paperwork on rostering on a 3 shift rotation was a major pain, and simplified by how the rotation ended up. It just worked.

            For where I am (public service btw), its not really an issue here either. We already have staff on site until 10pm, so theres already the basic support around anyway, though to be fair some does stop at 5pm. But there are ways around that.

            I just see it more as a cultural thing than anything else. I live a mile from work, and could easily do a 10 hr shift 4 days a week. Its just not one of those things we think about doing.

    Consider, though, the ratio of take-home pay. Reducing your work hours by 40% translates to a reduction by only ~35% in take-home pay, given how the tax brackets work. (Think of it as no longer working on the highest taxed days of the week.)
    And now for the anecdote: Years ago, I dropped from 5 days to 4. My take home pay dropped about 17%, not 20%, and factoring in no more Mondayitis (I had Mondays off), this move felt like it paid for itself doubly so. If only I could organise to do this again with my current role...
    (Disclaimer: this is an anecdote only and not an instruction to reduce your hours. The accuracy of that percentage should not be relied upon for life decisions. etc., etc.)

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