Before the Trade Unions fought for them, workers did not have weekends to enjoy time off work. Holidays, sick pay, maternity leave and more all came through effective campaigns to fight for rights which are now part of our everyday lives. Times continue to change, and further evidence and experience shifts our thinking and our needs. Is the next shift we must make staring us in the face? Is it time to move to a 4-day working week?
The idea of the 4-day week has been gaining popularity with many employers joining trials. Here in Sussex, the University of Sussex is running trials on the science behind it. This trial includes MRI scans, blood tests, sleep and productivity tracking to see the effects on people of working a 4-day week. I have been part of this trial, along with many other employers in Sussex, to see how this concept can work. And there is also a national trial being run with employers around the country.
What is the 4-day week?
Quite simply, it’s a model of working where employees work four days a week instead of the traditional five days for the same salary. There are a variety of ways employers are trialling this and those who adopt it have used different methods. Some have everyone having the same day off each week (this is not always a Friday or a Monday as you might think), some still cover the five days of the week with people taking different days off. And some work a 9-day fortnight to try a different working pattern.
The trials do not mandate how you implement the 4-day week. This is about employers in different sectors seeing what works for them. The opportunity to try out a new way of working has attracted a lot of employers, with 61 companies in the initial national trial.
There is also a global 4-day week project, with other countries involved including Japan, South Africa, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland led one of the largest pilots with 2,500 participants.
With the traditional five-day workweek being something that has not seen a great revolution for a long time, changing attitudes make this an appealing idea. People’s ideas around work-life balance and how they want to live have changed, so it seems obvious to look at how we work and to think of new ideas.
Why should we bother with this?
So why is this something that so many employers are testing? Well, there is overwhelming evidence that working in this way leads to higher productivity and happier people. As someone who is doing this trial right now, I know that there are those who find the idea uncomfortable and like to tell me all the reasons why this can’t work, so here’s some of the evidence.
- Increased productivity – Studies have shown that employees who work a shorter week are more productive. They are more focused and motivated during their working hours, knowing that they have an additional day off.
- Less burnout – over a six-month trial period, stress and burnout reduced by 71% in those who did the trial.
- Employee attraction and retention – There was a substantial decline (57%) in the likelihood that people would look for a different job, and it has become a way to attract new employees to roles.
- Reduction in illness – The results show a 65% reduction in sick days as people get more time to rest.
- Maintained revenue – Of the employers who are companies generating revenue, most have maintained the same level, but the increased productivity shows signs that revenue could grow with this model.
Some detractors are not convinced this way of working will work for them. Partly this is because these people don’t like change. There are also those who don’t think it can work for their industry.
In the interests of full transparency, yes, there are some employers for whom it has not worked. One company simply could not afford it. And for others, they found people were working the same number of hours in fewer days and feeling more stressed. There are even companies who have adapted their trial to see if it can suit their particular business. I have met some who run technical support lines, who have found that they need to vary the day that people have off to make it work. It’s really not all about everyone taking Fridays off.
There is a strong argument for the environmental benefits, too. Reduced traffic congestion means lower carbon emissions. Fewer cars on the road equals less traffic and less air pollution, which can only be a good thing. With everyone working different patterns. peak traffic times can be avoided.
After the results of the initial trial, more employers have said they are going to give it a go. The recent bank holidays have shown people that this way of working is worth trying. From the bin crews in Cambridge Council to Citizens Advice, Dunhelm, Atom Bank, some NHS trusts and Sainsburys, the idea is spreading and growing in popularity.
Soon it may be the employers who have not tried this who are left behind.