Could the four-day week be around the corner?

Evidence is stacking up that working fewer hours will help our well-being – but will employers back it?

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What would you do with an extra day to yourself a week? Exercise, volunteer, read? Let’s be honest, is it probably bingeing on the latest Netflix box set.

But however you spend your leisure time, there is a growing movement to make a three-day weekend the norm across society.

And although the campaign for a four-day week recently had a setback – with a major company rowing back on its introduction – there is growing evidence that slaving one day less would improve our health and relationships – and might be better in the long-run for the workplace, too.

Advocates cite a number of reasons why an extra day would be good for everyone: better productivity, more efficient usage of time, employee satisfaction, team building, lower unemployment rates, fewer overhead costs, more productivity innovations even benefits to the environment.

Companies such as Glasgow-based Pursuit Marketing switched to a four-day week a few years ago, giving every employee Fridays off without cutting pay.

“When we raised it initially, our finance director looked at it as just a salary cost,” said Pursuit Marketing’s operations director Lorraine Gray. But she says that since then the gains have been obvious.

Productivity increased by about 30%, sickness leave hit an all-time low and there have been unexpected cost savings, too: the company no longer needs to pay professional recruiters to hire staff as so many people want to work for them.

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, switched its 240 staff from a five-day to a four-day week and maintained their pay. Productivity increased in the four days they worked so there was no drop in the total amount of work done.

The change was monitored by academics and they found scores given by workers about leadership, stimulation, empowerment and commitment all increased compared with an earlier survey.

Details of a previous trial showed the biggest increases were in commitment and empowerment. Staff stress levels were down from 45% to 38%. Work-life balance scores increased from 54% to 78%.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” said Andrew Barnes, Perpetual Guardian’s founder and chief executive. “We need to get more companies to give it a go. They will be surprised at the improvement in their company, their staff and in their wider community.”

However, not everyone is convinced. One of the UK’s leading charities, the Wellcome Trust, began a consultation across its workforce on whether to bring in a four-day week.

“The exam question for us was, ‘Could we improve both the productivity and well-being of Wellcome staff and at the same time improve the overall impact we have as a charity?’” said Ed Whiting, its director of policy.

However, at the end of the review, the company decided against it due to worries from employees about their workload being compressed into four days, while some part-time workers were anxious that a new working week would hit their childcare or other arrangements. There were also others who worried that putting so much energy and time into moving towards a four-day week would distract the charity from its core work.

In April, 2019, the charity announced it had ruled out the change and Whiting said: “It wasn’t cost that drove the decision. It’s more the time-cost of how you put this all together and make it work for us as an organisation.”

The decision is a blow for those who advocate the move to a four-day week as a solution to rising stress and health problems linked to work, a way of boosting the UK’s productivity, or even a response to increasing levels of automation in the workplace.

And evidence that reduced work days can actually be productive for companies has built up over time.

A report by British university LSE in 2007 looked into how productivity changes across the working week and decided that fatigue, practice-efficiency (the concept that a worker increases in efficiency after a drop in skill over a rest period), and bursts of motivation caused by deadlines or upcoming time off are major influences on the quality or quantity of work done.

Concentrating working hours on the most productive days of the week – usually Tuesday to Thursday – may have a positive effect, as suggested by a 1999 study by Robert Lajeunesse, who advocated for working four days, but for ten hours each instead of eight. However, the LSE study preferred greater flexibility for working hours, instead of changing one rota for another.

A report in 2019 by Britain’s TUC, which represents workers, says that the four-day week could become a reality this century but says that government as well as companies need to be fully on board the concept if it is to come into effect.

The study says that government and business estimate new technologies could boost UK GDP by at least £200bn in the next decade. But most UK workers expect that the benefits of new technology will be kept by managers and shareholders, rather than also shared with workers.

Photo by Ramiro Mendes on Unsplash

The TUC believes reducing working time is a way to share the gains of increased prosperity and 81% of workers want to reduce working time in the future – with 45% of workers opting for a four-day working week.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Bosses and shareholders must not be allowed to hoover up all the gains from new tech for themselves. Working people deserve their fair share – and that means using the gains from new tech to raise pay and allow more time with their families.

“When the TUC’s first Congress took place 150 years ago, people worked ten hours a day with only Sunday off. But in the last century we won a two-day weekend and limits on long hours. This century, we must raise our sights to reduce working time again. If productivity gains from new technology are even half as good as promised, then the country can afford to make working lives better.”

“In the 19th century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the 20th century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays. So, for the 21st century, let’s lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone.”

And some companies are already taking the leap. International recruitment agency MRL is hiring people on a four-day week.

The UK firm’s boss, David Stone, said: “I don’t want to hire people who just want to work a four-day week, I want to hire people who are good enough to do five days of work in four.

“I want to give the staff more time to relax, get the life admin done, do whatever it is they need to do when they’re not in the office. I want them to have real work-life balance. When people retire, I want them to look back and say MRL was the best place they ever worked.”

Where do you sign, Mr Stone?

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