Thousands of UK workers will be taking part in a 4 day work week trial from June to December 2022, although the concept of a shorter working week is nothing new. Over the years, companies around the world have been testing different workweek initiatives, such as a four-day working week, to see what impact this would have on employee morale and wellbeing.
The 4 day work week is something I’ve long studied and been fascinated by, particularly when it comes to the health and happiness of the workforce. Do four work days a week make us happier? Does an extra day off improve wellbeing? Can it improve staff work/life balance? Whilst the results of this particular trial won’t be published until 2023, we can use previous studies to weigh up the benefits of a 4 day work week – and some of the drawbacks too.
How Does A 4 Day Work Week Work?
A 4 day work week is, quite simply, the option to work four days per week instead of five. This can be part of normal workplace flexibility options or as a fixed schedule arrangement. Some employers are opting for the 4/10 work week, where staff work 10 hours per day over four days. Others have experimented with 35 hours over four or five days, and some still have simply reduced working hours overall but kept the salary the same.
The pilot in the UK starting in June is thought to be one of the biggest four day work week trials in the world with 60 companies and 3,000 employees taking part. The previous trials in Iceland, back in 2015 and 2019, saw working hours reduced to 35 per week with no cut in pay for 2500 employees. In this 2022 trial, employers will be expected to follow the 100:80:100 model where employees are paid 100% of their pay for 80% of their time, with a commitment to maintaining 100% productivity.
UK Companies with 4 Day Work Weeks
So, which companies will be taking part in this UK trial? There are 60 businesses committing to this pilot, which is being organised by 4 Day Week Global, think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign, and researchers from Cambridge, Oxford and Boston College. The companies with 4 day work weeks from June 2022 include:
- 3D Issue
- Advice Direct Scotland
- Big Potato Games
- CMG Technologies
- Causeway Irish Housing Association
- Charlton Morris
- Common Knowledge
- Contour Couture
- Earth Science Partnership
- Elektra Lighting
- Entrepreneurs Circle
- Four Day Week Ltd
- Geeks For Social Change
- Highfield Professional Solutions
- Legacy Events
- Punch Creative
- Resilience Brokers
- Reward Agency
- SG World
- STOP AIDS
- Sinister Fish Games
- Social Enterprise Direct
- Softer Success
- T-Cup Studios
- Target Publishing
- The Circle
- The UPAC Group
- Venture Stream
- YWCA Scotland
The 4 Day Work Week Benefits
Previous studies on a four-day week have been undertaken in countries around the world, including New Zealand, Spain, Japan, and the US. Through these trials, we can see that there are some significant benefits to a 4 day work week, both for the employees and for the companies themselves. These include:
Happier, Healthier Employees
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest benefits reported after the Iceland trials were that employees felt less stressed. As their work/life balance improved, they were less at risk of chronic stress and burnout, and many reported feeling happier and healthier.
According to HSE, an estimated 822,000 workers were affected by work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the UK in 2020/21, which accounted for 50% of all work-related ill health during that time period. Reducing stress doesn’t just lead to happier and healthier employees, but less time off needed overall.
Employees who took part in the Iceland trials reported feeling happier, having more time for hobbies and creative pursuits, and more time to spend with their loved ones. We know that those who are less stressed and happier are far more likely to take care of themselves in other areas (such as eating healthier, moving their bodies, getting more sleep) and this can create a positive cycle of better overall physical and mental wellbeing.
Maintained or Increased Productivity
As humans, it’s practically impossible to stay focused, alert and productive for the number of hours we generally work every day or week. Researchers have long been campaigning to reduce workday hours to improve productivity, so can the same happen over a four day week? Iceland’s study showed that employees taking part in the trial either maintained or increased their productivity levels when switching to 35 hours per week.
Some examples from the Iceland trial, which also included government services, include:
- 93% of calls were answered at a government call centre by employees working shorter shifts, compared to 85% at a control workplace
- The police saw an average of 8.8 cases closed during the trial compared to 7.8 before the trial
- The time to process applications at the registry office fell from six days to two
Of course, there are some drawbacks to this in certain sectors which we’ll come to shortly. However, it’s clear that one of the biggest concerns about shorter work weeks – a drop in productivity – was unfounded.
Benefits for Organisations
With fewer days off needed due to stress and staff maintaining or improving their productivity, it’s clear that there are some huge benefits to businesses who decide to take on a shorter working week. With many organisations facing a recruitment crisis, and talks of the Great Resignation still taking up headlines, one of the key benefits is attracting and maintaining employees.
A four day work week may lead to a reduction in costs such as recruitment, training, turnover, sick days, and agency staff. Some organisations may find a reduction in overall workplace expenses, with fewer people in the office at once, although we have been witnessing this trend since March 2020 regardless.
Better for the Planet
Another argument made by campaigners for the four day work week are that countries with shorter working hours tend to have a smaller carbon footprint. Employees don’t need to commute as much and less energy is used to keep offices running.
A trial with government employees in Utah found that by closing the office building on Friday they saved $1.8 million in energy costs for the first ten months. It was also believed that around 12,000 metric tons of CO2 was saved by employees not commuting to work five days per week – that’s the equivalent of taking 2,300 cars off the road for one year.
As the world opens up again and people return to their offices, this could have a real impact on carbon emissions.
Closing the Pay Gap
There are some groups that believe shifting to a four day work week could also help address the gender inequality issue of women being more likely to give up work to take on unpaid caring responsibilities – such as bringing up children. This is believed to be one of the biggest causes of the gender pay gap in the UK, and the Women’s Budget Group think tank have argued that the gap could be narrowed with shorter working weeks.
The 4 Day Work Week Drawbacks
Of course, there are also drawbacks that come with a shorter workweek. Not least the fact that it’s just not possible for all. Whilst some organisations could choose to close on Fridays and experience all the benefits, other workplaces don’t have much choice than to be open 24/7. The obvious elephant in the room is the NHS, which is already under extreme pressure since the beginning of the pandemic.
Staff Shortages and Increased Costs
During the study in Iceland, the government had to hire more healthcare workers to cover the changing shift patterns at a cost of £24.2 million per year. If the UK decided to make four day working weeks the norm, the expense needed to cover an increase in healthcare workers would likely be eye-wateringly high.
For sectors that are already facing staff shortages, such as schools and healthcare, it would be practically impossible to introduce a four day work week without a huge recruitment drive. Workers in hospitality, emergency services, carers, business owners and many others would unlikely reap the benefits of a UK-wide shift in working days. Could this create animosity and inequality in the long run?
Longer Work Hour Stress
Depending on which method of shorter working weeks organisations opt for, this could actually lead to more stress rather than less. If employees were expected to work 10 hours per day over four days, they may find this stressful and see a drop in productivity levels too. Less time to look after their mental and physical health, and more time just recovering from longer shifts would have a knock-on effect on their overall wellbeing.
If companies are considering bringing this initiative in, it’s imperative that they consider what method works best for their teams and the business as a whole. The 100:80:100 method being trialled now is likely to have the greatest impact, but time will tell when the results are published.
Will It Actually Be Four Days?
With more and more people working from home, will they actually be able to stick to the four working days or will there be an expectation to always be available regardless? This was always one of my biggest concerns when moving to working from home during the pandemic – that companies would take advantage of employees who were worried they weren’t doing enough from home.
Those bringing in a four day working week should consider setting proper boundaries and integrating this into their company culture, which means leaders and managers have to do the same. No more “Do as I say, not as I do,” company bosses will have to take the lead and begin looking after their own wellbeing too.
The four day working week could be a huge step in the right direction to improve workplace wellbeing, but it needs to be considered carefully. Organisations just using it to potentially cut costs or make employees work more for less will find themselves struggling to attract employees at a time when recruiters are already struggling to bring in talent.
Whilst I’m 80% for an 80% work week, there are still some creases that need to be ironed out before we can bring in one of the biggest labour market reforms since the 1920s. Let’s see how this trial goes and what results it brings.