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#studentviews: Should a four-day working week become the norm?

A four-day working week is an attractive prospect for both workers and firms. But questions remain as to whether there is enough evidence to push for such a large-scale change to the structure of professional life in the UK.

Changes to the way we work are not a new phenomenon. Over decades, there have been dramatic shifts in women’s labour force participation, use of computers and the ever-increasing presence of information technologies in the working environment.

The productivity increases that have accompanied both labour force expansion and the digitisation of tasks now point to a new opportunity: to reduce working hours and improve work-life balance, all while ensuring that wages remain the same.

This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve experienced such a change. In 1926, Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company were the first to pull away from the then-normal six-day working week – offering higher wages and lower hours, yet yielding higher productivity and revolutionising the way we think about the working week today. Change is possible.

The supporting evidence make it difficult to ignore. Following a six-month trial conducted by 4 Day Week Global, research shows that a shortened working week can help to reduce anxiety, aid sleep and enable more time for exercise. Brendan Burchell, a professor at the University of Cambridge studying work’s effects on psychological wellbeing, reports that ‘even with our academic scepticism’, there has ‘been a really positive outcome’.

The trial found that about 40% of employees said their mental health had improved, with many reporting decreases in stress and anxiety. In a time where roughly one in ten suicides are work-related, it feels like now is the time to take action to improve the working environment in the UK.

The four-day working week doesn’t just benefit the worker. The UK is currently losing out to other economically developed nations in terms of working standards. The Workforce Institute at Kronos finds that 37% of employees believe that a shorter working week would make their organisation a more attractive choice of employment.

Looking at the UK healthcare industry, a study in the British Medical Journal shows that a third of junior doctors plan to leave NHS to work abroad in the next 12 months. So, perhaps now is the time to encourage emigration into the UK through favourable conditions and working hours, reversing this ‘brain drain’.

Put simply, longer hours take a toll on workers’ wellbeing. Having an additional day off could enable individuals to feel better rested, focus their time on personal development, and reduce levels of burnout.

The University of Cambridge and Boston College find that allowing for an additional rest day reduces sick and personal days taken by 65%. The UK government calculates that sickness absence, lost productivity through worklessness, informal care-giving and health-related productivity losses cost the country around £100 billion annually. Improving workers’ health and encouraging individuals to enter the workforce must be a priority.

But how can the UK achieve the four-day working week? Well, there is more than one answer to this question, which allows for the flexibility that is going to be key to its implementation. It seems that the question is no longer ‘should we adopt a four-day working week?’, but ‘what days should people have off?’. Should it be left to the worker to decide what day(s) they take off, or should firms adopt a block-leave approach?

The latter would promote consistency and routine, allowing for ease of communication and scheduling, while the former would ensure that customer-facing teams are available throughout the entire week. For this reason, the structure of the shortened working week is likely to vary from business to business.

For example, in June 2020, the Wanderlust Group – an outdoor travel technology company – elected to extend the weekend to Mondays, due to Friday being their busiest trading day. Giving businesses the option to choose how they shorten their working week could allow for a smoother and less disruptive transition.

Technology and productivity increases have also allowed the four-day working week to become the norm. As it stands, one in five workers in the UK now work exclusively from home, with 59% working from home at least once a week (according to data from the Office for National Statistics).

With the average commute time for a worker in London being 47 minutes, it seems that the technological advances that have allowed this increase in remote working may give workers an average of 1.5 hours of their day back. This time can be effectively used to increase productivity and allow workers to reduce their working hours, while sustaining the same level of output.

In fact, the Henley Business School finds that two-thirds of UK businesses that operated on a four-day working week reported improvements in productivity, contradicting traditional views. The study further claims that businesses that have adopted the shortened week have already saved £92 billion annually. Shorter hours, with the same output and saved costs, seems difficult to ignore. Perhaps it is time for a new norm.

Author: Alexander Barnham
Editor’s note: This article is from the University of Bristol’s communicating economics class of 2023-24.
Photo by Halfpoint on iStock
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