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Employment

Four-day working week: How’s the UK trial going and how close are we to getting it?

The world’s biggest trial of the four day working week is currently taking place here in the UK. Early reports suggest it’s going well

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.

The UK is running the biggest ever trial of the four-day working week, with over 3,000 employees taking part at 70 businesses. Companies taking part range from a brewery to a bank, game design company and a local fish and chip shop, with the trial capturing the imagination of overworked employees across the country.

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

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?

In its truest form, no. From January 2023, department store Marks & Spencer will be giving its retail managers the option to switch to a four day week, but there’s a catch. 

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They will still be required to work the same number of hours, but will have the option to compress their hours over a four-day week or nine-day compressed fortnight. M&S says the idea was inspired by those returning from maternity leave who wanted more flexibility, reports the Retail Gazette. 

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

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 be required to 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. However, you can choose to work more by opting out of the 48-hour week.

There are also further 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.  

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. There is also evidence to suggest that a shorter working 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.

Could the four day week help solve the recruitment crisis?

The number of people who are not in work, nor are they looking, is growing. This “economically inactive” group counts one in five of the working population among it, and is 1.2 percentage points higher than before the pandemic. That’s one in five people aged 16 to 64 who have completely removed themselves from the labour market. They have decided that work is just not working for them.  

But a four day working week could be a more doable option for those with long-term health conditions, childcare or other caring responsibilities, or who are over 50. 

“There are still more than half a million more people out of work than there were before the pandemic began and firms simply can’t find the workers to fill their jobs”, said Tony Wilson, Director at the Institute for Employment Studies.

South Cambridgeshire council recently became the first in the UK to switch to a four day working week – well, a trial, to see how it goes – explicitly to attract new staff. 

The Liberal Democrat council had one in three vacancies unfilled after the first three months of the year. It is currently having to pay agency staff to fill 23 office-based vacancies, which, over the space of a year, would cost the council upwards of £2million – that’s double the cost of hiring permanent staff members.

Councillor Bridget Smith, during a meeting to sign off on the change, said: “We are competing not just with other local authorities, we are competing with the private sector and they can offer so much more, it’s simply not a level playing field.”

The trial also hopes to attract a wider mixture of people to working for the council – including working parents and people with caring responsibilities, who would find a four day working week a cheaper and more flexible alternative to the standard monday to friday. 

“As a carer to my 92-year-old mother, I realise just how costly caring can be. The same can of course be said of childcare. If we can reduce the burden of these sorts of costs, which will also help with the cost of living, we could become an employer of choice for far more people who for very valid reasons simply cannot work the standard 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday,” Smith continued.

The UK is running the biggest ever trial of a four-day working week, how’s it going?

The biggest ever trial of a four-day working week is currently taking place in the UK, and it has hit the half-way mark. More than 3,000 staff members at 70 firms are taking part. 

Nine in ten of those have reported that they would be likely to consider keeping the new way of working. Just under a third said that the transition to one less working day a week had been “extremely smooth”, and just under half reporting that business productivity had improved “at least slightly” if not “significantly”. 

“We are learning that for many it is a fairly smooth transition and for some there are some understandable hurdles”, said Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4 Day Week Global. “Especially among those which have comparatively fixed or inflexible practices, systems, or cultures which date back well into the last century. 

“While for most organisations the pilot prompts many pleasing discoveries and outcomes – a lot of businesses have more flexibility and nimbleness among their people and teams that leaders often know at the outset – there is friction for others, and this can be based on a variety of factors, many of which can be addressed or substantially improved in the pilot itself.”

The highly anticipated six-month pilot involves companies across the four British nations, and aims to shed some light on the impact a permanent three-day weekend can have on wellbeing, productivity, the environment and gender equality.

The trial is being organised by campaign group  4 Day Week Global in partnership with think tank Autonomy and the 4 Day Week UK Campaign, and will be evaluated by researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College in the USA.

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Announced in January, the trial captured the imagination of the British public and businesses alike, with “hundreds” of companies expressing their interest in taking part. Those that signed up to participate range from racing games designer Hutch, to the Royal Society of Biology, a Sheffield-based robots company, a housing society in Merthyr Tydfil, and London brewery Pressure Drop Brewing. 

A trial of the shorter working week is already underway in Scotland, where the Scottish parliament has been urged to expand on the ongoing trial after research found there was overwhelming support for the project.

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.

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

Ireland 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. 

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.

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

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. 

“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.”

After a successful pilot in New Zealand, Unilever announced it would extend its four day working week trial to employees in Australia from November 2022.

Over two thirds of Unilever’s New Zealand employees said they had a better work-life balance under the trial, which also saw a 34 per cent drop in absenteeism.

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.

What impact does a four-day working week have on productivity?

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.

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.

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