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Employment

What is the four-day working week and how close is the UK to getting it?

Calls for a four-day working week to boost workers and the planet have grown louder since the Covid-19 pandemic forced greater flexibility on most.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already had a profound impact on working lives and a shift towards flexible working may see ideas like a four-day working week become commonplace.

A new UK trial of the four-day week, announced in January 2022 has sparked wider interest in the idea among businesses and workers alike. 

Here is everything you need to know about how a four-day week might work and what impact it could have.

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What is a four-day working week?

While a four-day working week sounds pretty much like what it is – i.e. workers would generally work four days and get a three-day weekend – the key thing to note is this arrangement would mean no reduction in pay for workers.

The five-day week has been part of UK working life for more than a century so an alteration would be considered a radical shift. It is a change that has been suggested more regularly in recent years – Labour included plans for a 32-hour working week with no loss of pay in their 2019 General Election manifesto.

Does a four-day week compress the same amount of work into fewer days?

Not in its truest form, no. For example, workers in Belgium will be given the right to request a four-day week without a reduction in pay, but campaigners have said it’s not what they’re asking for. 

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Under the reform, employees will be allowed to work up to 9.5 hours a day – the equivalent of 9am to 6.30pm –  meaning they will be able to squash a week of work into four longer days. This could be further extended to a 10-hour day through a workplace trade union agreement.

Flemish prime minister Alexander De Croo said the measures are being introduced “to give people and companies more freedom to arrange their work time.”

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But campaigners have highlighted that allowing compressed hours is not in line with the goals of transitioning to a four-day week

Responding to the Belgium government’s announcement, Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, welcomed more flexibility for workers to choose when they work, but stressed that “compressing a normal five day week into four-days is not the answer to tackling burnout, stress and overwork.”

“It’s essential that the move to a four-day week involves a reduction in working hours, with no loss of pay for employees,” he continued. 

The UK government has similar plans to make flexible working the default, which would, like Belgium, allow workers to request to compress their working week into four days. 

Under both the Belgium policy, and proposed UK policy, employers would still be allowed to deny the request within reason.

What is the maximum hours someone can work in a week in the UK?

Employers decide how many hours their employees must work as long as they comply with the working time directive – a law that governs how many hours employees work.

Currently, you can’t work more than 48 hours in a week under the law and if you are under 18 you can’t work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours in a week. These are central to UK employee rights.

But there are exceptions. If 24-hour staffing is required, you work in the armed forces, emergency services or police, security and surveillance, you’re a domestic servant in a private household, a seafarer, sea-fisherman or worker on vessels on inland waterways or in a job where ‘working time is not measured and you’re in control’ then you can go over 48 hours.

Why do campaigners want a four-day working week?

Campaigners say that a four-day working week brings a whole host of alleged benefits, tackling unemployment, health and wellbeing and even the climate crisis.

As a result of having to work less days, employees have a longer time to recuperate before returning to work and have more time to spend with families and friends, according to the 4 Day Week Campaign.

Top doctor John Ashton believes that a four-day week – without loss of pay – could “reduce sickness absence, improve morale which would improve the quality of what people are doing when they are working.”

Ashton has also highlighted the benefits a shorter week would have on family life in the UK, as well as creating more time for people to participate in voluntary activities for the betterment of their local communities.  

Labour shortages are hitting many sectors of the UK economy including, transport, hospitality, education, and the NHS, putting pressure on employees to deal with increasingly unsustainable workloads. 

Ashton argues that the NHS should adopt a four-day working week to address the burnout that is seeing health service staff quit or retire early.

“I think the four-day week will come over the next 10 years, and if the NHS doesn’t embrace it, the labour shortages will become even worse,” he told The Big Issue. 

In teaching, too, high numbers of teachers leave the profession due to some of the longest working hours in Europe, at an average of 51 per week for full timers. Think-tank Autonomy has argued that a shorter week would prevent teacher burnout and make them less likely to leave the profession. 

Autonomy has pointed to Forest Gate Community School in east London where pupils and teachers finished at 12.10 on Friday, resulting in happier teachers and higher grades

How could a four-day working week help the environment?

As for environmental impacts, a four-day week could mean less commuting and potentially reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by as much 127 million tonnes, according to environmental organisation Platform London and the 4 Day Week Campaign.

The advantages don’t stop at taking 27 million cars off the road during rush hour though – campaigners also insisted the extra time out of work could free up time to make environmentally positive choices.

For example, Brits would have time to do journeys on foot instead of by car or cook with fresh ingredients instead of relying on ready meals.

“The evidence also suggests that a four-day week would help to bring down carbon emissions, improve gender equality and give people more time to engage with politics at a local and national level,” said Ryle.

How much support is there for a four-day week? 

There is growing support for the UK government to introduce a four-day working week.

According to a poll by Survation conducted in October 2021, nearly 50 per cent of the British public want to scrap the 9am-5pm, five-day work week. 

Of those who were in favour of scrapping the nine to five, 42 per cent said they wanted fewer hours and fewer days.

This is followed by 38 per cent who want fewer hours and more days, which could combine flexible working with part-time working.  

But there are doubts from employers and employees alike what the impact would be on productivity.

What evidence is there that a four-day week works?

Campaigners have long claimed that making employees work for four days instead of five actually increases productivity.

Researchers in Iceland found that a four-day work week, without a pay cut, improved workers’ well-being and productivity.

For four years, researchers tracked 2,500 employees who reduced their work week from 40 hours to 35 or 36 hours, according to a study published by Autonomy, a progressive UK think tank. Participants in the study worked in a range of jobs including, offices, playschools and social service offices.

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The researchers found that “worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.”

At the same time, productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces, the study said.

Is the UK shifting to a four day week?

Not quite, but it’s taking steps in that direction by hosting the world’s largest pilot with at least sixty British companies taking part.

The new UK-based trial of the four-day week was announced in January 2022 by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College. 

Sixty firms with over 3,000 staff have now signed up to take part in the trial which will see employees asked to commit to maintaining at least 100 per cent productivity, and in return, receive an extra day off with no cut to pay. The six month trial which will kick off in June 2022. 

“Our expectation is that this will result in a win-win scenario for both workers and employees, and hopefully that will be clear once the results are through in about a years time,” campaign director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, told The Big Issue.

Within days of the announcement, the campaign organisation was “inundated” with hundreds of enquiries from businesses interested in trying out the model.

Ahead of the Scottish election, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised a £10m fund to allow firms to test out a four-day week, and it seems the SNP plan to deliver on their manifesto promise.

The Scottish government has been urged to expand on the ongoing trial after research found there was overwhelming support for the project.

The pilot is now in the design phase, and will soon be seeking office-based businesses to try out a shorter working schedule, without cutting worker pay. 

IPPR Scotland senior research fellow Rachel Statham said trials must now be carried out in “all kinds of workplaces”, including non-office jobs, to provide a thorough test of how the idea works in practice.

Sturgeon had promised the pilot would pave the way for a “more general shift to a four-day working week, as and when Scotland gains full control of employment rights”.

“The pandemic has served to intensify interest in and support for more flexible working practices, which could include a shift to a four-day working week,” a Scottish government spokesperson said.

Ireland, too, is undertaking a six-month trial of the four-day week, which kicked off in February 2022. At least 20 companies have signed up to the trial orchestrated by 4 Day Week Global. Similar pilots are being conducted by the international organisation in the US and Canada, starting in April 2022. 

University College Dublin and Boston College will research the impacts of the new way of working on carbon emissions, productivity and wellbeing, compared with a standard five-day work week.

Which other countries are trialling a four-day working week?

Like the UK, 4 Day Week Global is orchestrating four-day working week pilots in the US and Canada, with 38 companies signed up so far. 

A year and a half after making the shift, New York social-media company Buffer found that 91 per cent of its team reported that they felt happier and more productive with a four-day workweek. 

It comes as little surprise that a survey from cloud-software vendor Qualtrics found that nine in 10 US workers are in favour of the shortened work week

Last year the Japanese government stated in its annual economic policy guideline that it encourages companies to offer an optional four-day working week to their employees, and it looks like many companies are taking the advice. 

Major Japanese conglomerate Panasonic will give some employees the option of working a four-day working week up until March 2023 as it experiments with the new model of working. 

“It is our responsibility to ensure a work-life balance to our diverse workers,” Panasonic President Yuki Kusumi told journalists in January.

Hitachi Ltd., Mizuho Financial Group Inc. and Fast Retailing Co, the operator of the clothing chain Uniqlo, is already implementing a four-day working week, The Japan Times has reported. 

In a survey of 4,000 companies, Japan’s labour ministry found that 8.5 per cent of companies were giving employees more than two days a week off.

Which businesses have tried a four-day working week?

Businesses are becoming increasingly interested in the potential benefits of giving employees an extra day off, with the British arm of camera company Canon becoming one of the latest businesses to trial a four-day working week without a pay cut. 

Online bank Atom Bank has introduced a four-day week for its 430 staff with the company seeing a 500 per cent increase in job applications almost immediately after the announcement. 

The bank’s employees will now work 34 hours over the course of four days and get to take Monday or Friday off. The past system saw each employee work 37.5 hours per week, meaning that their working days will be longer. 

“Before Covid, the conventional wisdom was you had to commute in, sit at a desk all day and repeat that process when you commuted home,” said Mark Mullen, who has led the Durham-based bank since 2014, told The BBC. 

“Everyone is expected to stick to it,” he continued. “I can’t be sending my staff emails on a Friday, I can’t expect them to respond to them.”

Unilever announced last November it would be trialing a four-day working week in New Zealand. The trial will run from December 2020 to December 2021, with researchers from the Sydney’s University of Technology (UTS) Business School measuring how performance fares.

Microsoft trialed a four-day working week for a month in Japan in August 2019 and reported a 40 per cent rise in productivity.

However not all employers have found that it’s worked for them. Science research foundation the Wellcome Trust scrapped plans to trial a four-day week in 2019 for its 800 head office staff, finding that it would be “too operationally complex”.

The decision was the result of a three-month study which found compressing work into a Monday to Thursday window could harm productivity of some workers and negatively affect the wellbeing of others.

Does a four-day week cost more money?

A four-day working week is not without its detractors.

There have been suggestions that introducing a four-day week could be costly. Following the announcement of Ireland’s six-month pilot programme, minister for public expenditure Michael McGrath estimated changing working patterns could cost around €4.2 billion (£3.6bn).

The Irish minister told the Irish Times the knock-on effect to emergency service provision and childcare arrangements meant it is “not the right time” to make the switch.

Career tips and advice from our Jobs and Training series:

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