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What is the 4 day working week and why are UK campaigners calling for it?

Calls for a 4 day working week to boost workers and the planet have grown louder during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here’s everything you need to know
A four-day working week could be on the cards after Covid-19 changed working arrangements for large sections of the UK workforce. Image: Maxime/Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic has already had a profound impact on working lives and a shift towards flexible working may see ideas like a 4 day working week become commonplace.

A third of the employed population did some work at home in 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics, up almost 10 percentage points on 2019. This newfound flexibility means that some workers may not be keen to return to their previous pre-pandemic work arrangements and calls for progressive ideas like a four-day week to be trialled have grown louder.

Here is everything you need to know about how a four-day week might work and what impact it could have.

What is a 4 day working week?

While a four-day working week sounds pretty much like what it is – i.e. workers would generally work four days and get a three-day weekend – the key thing to note is this arrangement would mean no reduction in pay for workers.

The five-day week has been part of UK working life for more than a century so an alterations would be considered a radical shift. It is a change that has been suggested more regularly in recent years – Labour included plans for a 32-hour working week with no loss of pay in their 2019 General Election manifesto.

But the impact of the pandemic has already seen changes to work patterns and the voices calling for a four day working week have grown louder and more prominent.

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What is the maximum hours someone can work in a week in the UK?

Employers decide how many hours their employees must work as long as they comply with the working time directive – a law that governs how many hours employees work.

Currently, you can’t work more than 48 hours in a week under the law and if you are under 18 you can’t work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours in a week. These are central to UK employee rights.

But there are exceptions. If 24-hour staffing is required, you work in the armed forces, emergency services or police, security and surveillance, you’re a domestic servant in a private household, a seafarer, sea-fisherman or worker on vessels on inland waterways or in a job where ‘working time is not measured and you’re in control’ then you can go over 48 hours.

Why do campaigners want a 4 day working week?

Campaigners say that a four-day working week brings a whole host of alleged benefits, tackling unemployment, health and wellbeing and even the climate crisis.

As a result of having to work less days, employees have a longer time to recuperate before returning to work and have more time to spend with families and friends, according to the 4 Day Week Campaign.

A study from think tank Autonomy also laid out the impact on employment last summer. Autonomy suggested industries hit hard by Covid-19 – name-checking hospitality, retail and the arts – could adopt a 32-hour “subsidised shorter working week” to avoid mass lay-offs. This would keep more people in work and avoid overwork as employees were not forced to pick up workloads of departed colleagues.

It’s not the first time working hours have been capped in response to a crisis. Autonomy identified President Theodore Roosevelt’s New Deal in response to the Great Depression in 1930s America as the prime example. The Thatcher government’s response to the 1979 to 1982 recession took a similar approach, the think tank said. 

As for environmental impacts, a four-day week could mean less commuting and potentially reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by as much 127 million tonnes as a result, according to environmental organisation Platform London and the 4 Day Week Campaign. The advantages don’t stop at taking 27 million cars off the road during rush hour though – campaigners also insisted the extra time out of work could free up time to make environmentally positive choices. For example, Brits would have time to do journeys on foot instead of by car or cook with fresh ingredients instead of relying on ready meals. 

Joe Ryle, a campaigner with the 4 Day Week Campaign, said: “The four-day week with no loss of pay is a win-win for both workers and employers.

“Wherever we’re seeing the four-day week implemented, productivity is going up and so is workers’ wellbeing.

“The evidence also suggests that a four-day week would help to bring down carbon emissions, improve gender equality and give people more time to engage with politics at a local and national level.

“We invented the weekend a century ago. It’s time for an update.”

The big question for employers is: how does a four-day working week impact on productivity? Campaigners have long claimed that making employees work for four days instead of five actually increases productivity. There are several studies backing up that claim but big businesses have also found benefits – Microsoft trialled a four-day working week for a month in Japan in August 2019 and reported a 40 per cent rise in productivity.

What countries have a 4 day working week?

There is growing support for the UK government to introduce a four-day working week.

According to a recent poll by Survation on behalf of the 4 Day Week Campaign, 64 per cent of the 2,000 adults quizzed said they would support the UK government in piloting a four-day week across the UK with only 13 per cent opposed to the idea.

Other countries have already gone a step further. Ahead of May’s Scottish election, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised a £10m fund to allow firms to test out a four-day week. The pledge was included in the Scottish National Party’s manifesto with Sturgeon promising the pilot would pave the way for a “more general shift to a four day working week, as and when Scotland gains full control of employment rights”.

Ireland, too, has announced plans for a pilot programme to test out a four-day working week from January 2022. The experiment will last for six months and see employers in Ireland test the idea out alongside others in the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Joe O’Connor, chairperson of the Four Day Week Ireland campaign, said “In the last year we have seen radical shifts in our working practices. More flexible ways of working are here to stay.

“The launch of the four-day week pilot programme represents an exciting moment of change for employers and employees, and it’s up to the business community now to show that they are willing to lead and support this change for the better.”

Further afield, a three-year 32-hour working week experiment has been launched in Spain as part of the European country’s economic recovery following Covid-19. The leftwing Spanish party, Más País, made the proposal earlier this year and the Spanish government has now given the project the green light.

Big businesses have been keen to test out the idea too, Unilever announced last November it would be trialling a four-day working week in New Zealand.

But the Westminster government has been reluctant to follow suit.

When quizzed about Autonomy’s findings that a four-day working week could create 500,000 public sector jobs last summer, a government spokesperson said: “It is not for the government to mandate working patterns for businesses or their employees.”

Does a 4 day work week save money?

A four day working week is not without its detractors.

There there have been suggestions that introducing a four-day week could be costly. Following the announcement of Ireland’s six-month pilot programme, minister for public expenditure Michael McGrath estimated changing working patterns could cost around €4.2 billion (£3.6bn). The Irish minister told the Irish Times the knock-on effect to emergency service provision and childcare arrangements meant it is “not the right time” to make the switch.

In addition, while the boost to productivity has been reported in several studies and isolated cases, the idea remains untested at large scale in the UK.

It is true that not all industries and workers would be able to transition into a four-day week, however, this is also true of a five-day week with workers in the armed forces and emergency services exempt from the UK working time directive, for example.

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