COBBINAH: Embracing the four-day work week

“The way we’ve always done things,” meaning five eight-hour work days in a row and two days off the clock, is not necessarily the best way to do things.


Emery Little

Studying planner for the 2020-2021 school year. (Hustler Multimedia/Emery Little)

Jessie Cobbinah

During my first full day back on campus after a semester and a half of remote learning, I sat amongst the boxes and suitcases in my new dorm and looked at my laptop screen in horror. The syllabus for the French class I was enrolled in had just been released, and it quickly became evident that it would not work for me or my schedule. Apart from the in-person classes held during times marked asynchronous on YES, it was a level above introductory, and my prior French experience was limited to casual Duolingo lessons and listening to my French-minor sister translate random words mid-conversation.

Now, I admit I should have paid closer attention to the guidelines before enrolling in the class, but the fact of the matter was that despite needing at least fifteen credit hours, I ended up dropping the course before its first meeting—and before I had another class lined up to replace it. I attended an in-person lecture for another course to discover that the professor wouldn’t hold classes on Fridays, instead opting for asynchronous work that I could easily knock out before the 5 p.m. deadline. After some covert searching on YES during that same lecture, I found a literature class that magically met my standards—it would fill a requirement for my second major. Not only that, but the time didn’t contradict my pre-existing classes and it only met twice a week, meaning that for the most part, my Fridays were free.

What I have learned from having a perpetual three-day weekend is that “the way we’ve always done things,” meaning five eight-hour work days in a row and two days off the clock, is not necessarily the best way to do things. A lot of my struggles from previous semesters still exist, but having an extra day in my weekend gives me adequate time to both decompress from the previous week and get my mind oriented on the classes, assignments and other obligations in front of me. The taxing mental preparation for the week ahead, commonly referred to as the “Sunday Scaries,” has less of a hold on me. When I fall behind in a class, I have ample time to catch up without causing an even bigger rift with the work in my other classes. And, I’ll be honest, sometimes my Fridays consist of binge-watching my favorite TV shows, but at least I can do that without experiencing the gnawing guilt that plagued me if I sat down for even one episode in semesters past.

The customary five-day work week was popularized in 1914 by none other than Henry Ford, the owner of Ford General Motors and innovator of the assembly line. More than 100 years later, what we fail to recognize is that human beings are so much more than assembly-line workers. In “elite” spaces like Vanderbilt, there tends to be a 24/7 grind culture. This leads people to turn a blind eye to their physical and mental needs until they are forced to pay attention, often by adverse health effects like burnout and depression, which one third of college students face.

However, we can have rigor and excellence alongside wellness and self-prioritization; the concepts are not mutually exclusive.

Having an additional day to focus on self-care (The candles-skincare-bubble baths variety is helpful, but so is the more mundane drink-eight-glasses-get-eight-hours variety. This is more likely to fall to the wayside when we don’t prioritize it.) or new hobbies allows us to draw more clear lines between when we’re “on” and when we’re “off.” Achieving work-life balance allows us to be our best selves in both realms. Now that we are a full year out from Zoom revolutionizing the way we do work, decreasing the amount of time spent physically in the office or the classroom is more feasible than ever in a variety of professions. 

So what will it take to reach this point? Is it worth the hassle of getting people accustomed to this new way of life, not to mention the inevitable disparities related to who will benefit from or even be eligible for four-day work weeks within the workforce? This is immediately clear in the fact that, without institutional support, this schedule isn’t an option available to many students. I doubt Vanderbilt will choose to pioneer a four-day work week in the university landscape since its effectiveness is unproven on a wide scale, and there’s not much of a precedence among universities. Still, as countries like Spain experiment with a transition to a four-day work week, it’s not the impossibility it may appear to be. At the very least, Vanderbilt could begin by expanding the selection of classes that only meet on Mondays and Wednesdays. Fridays are my days to sleep without an alarm set, move at my own pace and remind myself that there’s more to me than my productivity.