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#studentviews: Is the UK ready for a four-day week?

Several organisations in the UK have been trialling a four-day working week. Early insights from the pilot scheme suggest that the transition could improve workers’ quality of life and potentially help to crack the country’s longstanding problem of low productivity growth.

The idea of reducing the length of the working week is not new. Historically, the amount of time we spend at our jobs has fallen since the Industrial Revolution, with people now working half the hours of someone in the 19th century. Today, technology has allowed workers to produce more than ever while enjoying better living standards and work-life balance.

The downward trend in working time led British economist John Maynard Keynes to write that our generation would work just 15 hours a week. Three decades later, US president Richard Nixon believed that a four-day workweek was in the ‘not too distant future‘ for the American worker.

Yet many of us still face the five-day, 40-hour schedule that Henry Ford popularised for his factory workers 100 years ago, even though employment today is vastly different. Revisions to this way of working are long overdue.

In June 2022, this reality changed for 3,300 UK employees. In total, 72 businesses – ranging from a recruitment company in Exeter to a fish and chip shop in Norfolk – are participating in a groundbreaking programme that is laying the foundations for the future of work.

The six-month pilot – co-ordinated by 4 Day Week Global, in partnership with Autonomy, a thinktank, as well as academics from Oxford University, Boston College and Cambridge University – uses a framework aimed at improving commercial outcomes. Employees will receive 100% pay for 80% of their time, while continuing to complete 100% of their weekly tasks.

Halfway through the programme, this appears to be a success. A study conducted with the participant businesses finds that eight out of ten are likely to make a permanent move to four days, with half already seeing improvements in output and employee satisfaction. One respondent noted that the changes they made ‘improved productivity and offered increased value for the organisations we work with’.

These results should not come as a shock. The founder of the experiment, Andrew Barnes, had trialled and implemented a four-day working week at his company in New Zealand after observing rises in employee engagement, wellbeing and productivity. And a report by Autonomy shows that following the completion of a trial in Iceland, 86% of the country’s workforce now have contracts allowing them to reduce their working hours.

Similarly, Microsoft Japan found that staff were 40% more productive when taking Fridays off – more than accounting for the reduction in hours. Unsurprisingly, in a country where overworking kills 2,000 people a year, nine out of ten of the workers preferred the shorter week and employee satisfaction improved.

To compete with these countries, the UK should surely start to embrace the shorter working week. Low productivity (the amount of goods and services that a country makes per worker) has harmed the economy for far too long.

Compared with France and Germany, the UK works longer and produces less. Research from the University of Groningen has the average British employee clocking in for 35 hours a week compared with France’s 31 and Germany’s 28. Yet output per worker per hour remains about far lower than in its two neighbours.

Indeed, when looking at countries across Europe, there are some undeniable trends. Denmark, Norway and Switzerland are among the five happiest, according to the World Happiness Report, and predictably among the most productive. Overall, countries where people spend less time at work seem to produce more and are happier.

The four-day week solution could also help to fix two other issues facing the UK – rising prices and stagnant wages. Workers produce little more per hour than they did 15 years ago. Since 2008, productivity has grown at 0.6% per year compared with 2% in the ten years before, and at lower rates than countries such as France and Germany.

As with all economic problems, the issue is complex and there are many factors that cause this, such as lack of investment and education standards. But with households facing rising expenses, increasing output will reduce their burden.

As production increases, average costs fall, making things relatively cheaper for families. This means that the economy will be performing better, and weekly shops and bills should see smaller increases in prices as production and service becomes more efficient. With inflation currently over 10% in the UK, this would soften the pressure on households.

With the world of work changing and pilot programmes starting in North America, Spain, New Zealand and many other locations, the UK needs to act first to protect workers and strengthen the economy.

Author: Joshua Fleary
Editor’s note: This article is from the University of Bristol’s communicating economics class of 2022-23.
Picture by IR_Stone on iStock
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