The Four-Day Working Week - Is it Time?

After a recent increase in media interest, our very own Juliet Ralph takes a look at some of the facts and figures around the concept of a four-day working week. 

There has been a recent increase in media coverage surrounding the concept of a four-day working week. This has been prompted by campaigns for a shorter working week from bodies such as the TUC, murmurings by the Labour party of an independent inquiry into cutting the working week, as well a flurry of organisations conducting their own trials of the four-day working week concept. 
In the UK there is an ingrained culture of working long hours and presenteeism is still commonplace, resulting in more employees than ever experiencing mental health issues due to being overworked and stressed. Statistics from the HSE article ‘Work related stress, anxiety and depression statistics in Great Britain’ report a year on year increase in the number of days lost to work-related stress, citing that one in four sick days in the UK is as a direct result of workload. For many, working long hours has become a learned behaviour that is hard to break, and work life balance is suffering as a result. It is clear that something needs to change.

So what effects does working less hours for the same pay have on employees and what benefits are there for organisations?

Think-tank the New Economic Foundation produced a briefing document in 2018 entitled ‘Achieving a Shorter Working Week in the UK’ which argued that a shorter working week could reap potential benefits for some of the major economic and societal challenges that we face. It suggests that both the employer and employee could profit from reducing the amount of time people are spending in work whilst keeping their pay the same. The document proposes that there are several benefits to working a shorter week, including future proofing the economy, boosting productivity, improving gender equality and putting wellbeing first. 

The document sites a range of research that has shown a shorter week boosts productivity, including data relating to the fact that there are a number of OECD countries where people work fewer hours than the UK yet have greater productivity, that working long hours actually reduces productivity and trials conducted by individual firms that have shown a productivity boost, improved staff retention and a reduction in sick leave. 

One such trial is the much publicised 8-week assessment conducted at New Zealand based Perpetual Guardian in which employees moved from working a five-day to a four-day week. In conducting the trial, the organisation stated it wanted to help employees be the best they can at work and test the theory that efficiencies will come if staff are more focused and motivated. 

Perpetual Guardian published their white paper ‘Guidelines for an Outcome-Based Trial – Raising Productivity and Engagement’ earlier this year. Findings included maintained job performance with productivity actually being slightly improved, staff stress levels were lowered, employees felt their work life balance had improved and team engagement levels increased. Employees reported feeling more confident about making decisions and having more say over how they worked. They felt more valued and therefore wanted to go the extra mile for the organisation. 

The white paper stresses that the key to reducing working hours but maintaining the same output is a change in the way in which employees approach their work.  They will need to be encouraged to analyse the way in which they currently work and then consider how they can work smarter in order to get their workload completed within a shorter timeframe. There is also importance placed on employees being involved in the transition process as this contributed to feelings of respect and value amongst employees. This can develop trust between employees and management which can only help with productivity and employee wellbeing as well as engagement and retention.  

In terms of employee wellbeing, the evidence points to a definite link between employee working hours and their mental health, with further data showing that by reducing working hours, the number of sick days taken due to work related stress can also be reduced. Trials have shown that employees who are given an extra day of leisure feel more motivated at work because they have a better work life balance. Introducing a four-day working week with the same pay would be akin to providing employees with a pay rise, but instead of money they are being given leisure time.

The evidence in favour of a four-day working week appears to be mounting up, and as bodies such as the TUC continue to lobby for the change, this is only going to increase. The main barriers to the switch appear to be based around an ingrained working culture where the focus is on the number of hours worked rather than productivity and there needs to be a change in mindset. 

Obviously there is a lot of groundwork to be done before a four-day week can be implemented and it will not suit every industry but if productivity can at the very least be maintained and customers remain unaffected whilst employees are happier, more motivated and more engaged, is it not a win-win for everyone?

Here is a link to the Perpetual Guardian white paper: Download White Paper

And here is a link to the NEF briefing document: Dowload Report

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