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A four-day working week?

07 May 2022

We’ve all heard the whispers, but could it possibly be true?

Over the last few years, numerous businesses across the UK have experimented with a four-day working week but things are about to get even bigger.

The largest trial of its kind is currently underway, with over 60 companies and roughly 3,000 staff taking part. Early results appear to be promising and we may be on the verge of an exciting new way of working - maybe.

But what are the benefits of a four-day working week? And can it all be too good to be true?

Why do we work for five days?

Before we look at the apparent benefits of changing the status quo, let’s begin with why as a society we have chosen to work for five days.

It wasn’t always like this of course. You don’t need to go too far back to find a time when people toiled for 12 hours a day, six days a week, with Sunday the only day guaranteed day off, and even that could conveniently be forgotten. Working conditions were frequently appalling well before health and safety and human resources were even a consideration.

We have Henry Ford to thank for our switch to a five-day working week. The car manufacturing tycoon was one of the earliest to scale back weekly hours worked without cutting pay in 1914, but there were several instances where it happened even earlier, notably a cotton mill in New England where employees were given both Saturday and Sunday in accordance with both the Christian and Jewish faiths.

Middle Ground

It certainly took some time before things spread around the developed world and it wasn’t until 1998 that the UK introduced its Working Time Regulations that limited over 18s to no more than 48 hours per week and under 18s to 40 hours - unless the employee opted out.

It’s therefore only been 25 years since the UK formally blocked longer working hours, but in reality, the days of 100 hours a week have been long gone for some time.

Modern Dissatisfaction

It’s fair to say that many people are suffering from widespread dissatisfaction in the modern era and the causes of this can be extensive. Depression, stress and anxiety have never been higher and while our working conditions, and indeed the job we have, are certainly not the sole contributor, it’s something that commonly gets blamed.

We do spend an enormous amount of our lives at work, taking up 50% of our waking hours during workdays, and as much as 21% of our time over a 76-year span. This isn’t such a problem when people love what they do, but with between 75% and 95% of people reporting that they hate their jobs, this amounts to a staggering amount of time spent doing something you don’t like.

Is a four-day working week the answer?

It’s highly unlikely that everybody switching to a four-day working week will solve many of the long-term mental health issues that we have seen explode in recent decades - but it might at least help.

We’ve long had a vague understanding that our work-life balance has been out of whack and this could be one of the first steps to readdressing this. But it will almost certainly need to be done in conjunction with other factors to see real success, such as improving overall work culture, limits on work emails and more flexible working options.  

Simply giving people an extra day will be great, but if things continue as they are, how long will it be until we begin asking for three-day working weeks?   

Evidence

A four-day working week may not be the panacea to our employment woes, but many trials have shown plenty of promise. A four-year study in Iceland has led to significant changes already, with employees in the study reporting better general levels of happiness, increased time with their loved ones and reduced stress linked to work.

Microsoft office in Japan carried out a similar trial and saw a huge 40% increase in productivity, while in New Zealand, Perpetual Guadian trialled a 4-day working week and found that 78% of employees could more effectively balance their work and home life - compared to 54% prior to the trial.

While there are plenty of success stories, none of them have been running long enough to see how long the changes last and whether people eventually revert to their original state. All we have to go on is the short term data, which at the very least shows enormous promise.

The Choice Ahead  

It seems likely that most companies will eventually follow the trend and move to four-day weeks. Once some of the big hitters do so, others will need to follow suit in order to keep up with recruitment and retention.

As we said, a four-day week will almost certainly improve things in the short term, but for many organisations, the root causes of employee dissatisfaction go much deeper. It could well be an important start, but in order to see long-term success when it comes to mental health, it will need to be implemented along with other major changes.