If you’ve been at home from Monday to Friday, is an extra two days at home really that appealing?

Finding your weekend fulfilling, restful and useful isn’t easy when things are disrupted so much. During lockdowns and periods of working from home, it’s not easy to get away from work - especially for those with an increased responsibility for emotional labour.

Work-life boundaries are blurred, and when your tech devices are always within reach, it’s easy to check your emails and Slack messages after hours when you really should be resting.

Taking time away from work is crucial for our health and wellbeing, but with these challenges, can we still really enjoy our weekends?

We might be over the worst of the lockdowns in the UK, we might not. But working from home is far from over. So let’s look at the future of the weekend when many of us are stuck at home.

What are weekends for anyway?

Weekends have a surprisingly complex history, and while we take them as standard, there’s a lot of variety in work-week length and arrangement around the world.

Mongolia, for example, has a Monday to Friday working week with typical 8 hour days, just like us. But Qatar’s week runs Sunday to Thursday, with 8 hour days reduced to 5 during Ramadan.

According to Wikipedia, the industrial revolution had a significant part to play in getting to where we are now:

"The present-day concept of the relatively longer 'week-end' first arose in the industrial north of Britain in the early 19th century and was originally a voluntary arrangement between factory owners and workers allowing Saturday afternoon off from 2 pm on the basis that staff would be available for work sober and refreshed on Monday morning."

A 1.5 day weekend, then, was thought to be enough to make us ’sober and refreshed’. There may have been some disagreement between factory owners and their labourers, of course - the latter would probably have preferred a longer break.

So where do we stand now with weekends?

Taking Saturday and Sunday off is still the norm, but freelancers, the self-employed, business owners, gig economy workers, and shift workers all know how weekends aren’t always used for rest and relaxation.

Many have lost their jobs during 2020’s economic downturn, so the effect of a weekend will be greatly diminished for them. And now quarantine has made things even fuzzier.

So to figure out if we’re really losing something great, we need to consider what’s so great about weekends in the first place.

We’re creatures of habit

Having specific days and times in which we do our work (and those in which we don’t) is really important for our wellbeing.

Habits and routines reduce the daily mental load we have to bear by making things easily repeatable. Think of it like this: if you have a different day off each week, you have to reconsider your calendar each week too. You have to decide when you’re going to rest, when you’ll exercise, when you’ll see your friends. It even means you’ll have to plan your food shopping accordingly. But routine saves you from having to make those choices.

Unpredictable rest is simply less restful.

As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits,

“Whether we are approaching behaviour change as an individual, a parent, a coach, or a leader, we should ask ourselves the same question: ‘How can we design a world where it’s easy to do what’s right?’ Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do.”

We need to make resting properly as easy as possible. And the best way of doing that is keeping weekends sacred.

Weekends should be protected during disruptive times

We need routine, and we need rest.

Taking a single day of rest at a time - or even less - doesn’t give you the opportunity to really forget about work and remember what it’s like to be human again. Two or three consecutive days each week is much better; you get to take one slow day for relaxing or sleeping in, and one more active day where you can get out, reconnect with nature or spend valuable time with friends and family.

And a third day? Even better. As we’ve mentioned before, a four-day week (and subsequent three-day weekend) can cause a big uplift in wellbeing. And counter-intuitively it often leads to higher productivity, despite less time spent at work.

While we do have to make some sacrifices to maintain social distancing, it’s not impossible to keep a relatively normal-feeling weekend. Speaking to BBC Worklife, Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, says

“I’d encourage people to find ways to replicate what they did on weekends using the current creative things we're doing in this time. Did you do Sunday brunch every week with friends? Make some pancakes at home and meet over Zoom. Was Saturday morning the day for your big run? Then head out for a socially distanced jog. The idea is to find ways to replicate the routines we had previously as much as possible to bring some normalcy back to the odd situation we find ourselves in.”

Not everyone has the opportunity to take weekends off, but those that do certainly shouldn’t take them for granted.