What is the four-day working week and how close are we to getting it in the UK?

The world’s biggest ever trial of the four day working week has ended, and the results are very interesting

Almost every company that trialed a four-day working week in the UK pilot decided to continue the arrangement after the trial ended. Image: krakenimages / Unsplash

The biggest ever trial of the four-day working week, held here in the UK, has released its results, and boy do they make for positive reading.  

Held over over six months, with over 2,900 employees at 70 organisations taking part. They include a diverse range of employers from a brewery to a bank, a game design company and a local fish and chip shop.

How did it go? Well, almost all of the companies taking part say they will continue the new way of working.

The trial has captured the imagination of overworked employees across the country, sparking debates in Parliament and inspiring trade unionists to take their demands a step further.

Here’s what we learned from this groundbreaking trial, and what we know so far about the future of the working week.

What is a four-day working week?

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

The five-day week has been part of UK working life for more than a century so an alteration 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.

Does a four-day week compress the same amount of work into fewer days?

In its truest form, no. Some workplaces already allow employees to work compressed hours, a form of flexible working that allows people to work more hours in fewer days. Since January 2023, that has included department store Marks & Spencer, which has allowed retail managers to work compressed hours. 

While campaigners have welcomed more flexibility for workers to choose when they work, Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign – which ran the trial – stressed that “compressing a normal five day week into four-days is not the answer to tackling burnout, stress and overwork.” 

A four-day working week in its intended form would see employees have their working hours cut by 20 per cent, bringing them down to around 28 hours a week, with no cut to pay.

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 be required to 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. However, you can choose to work more by opting out of the 48-hour week.

There are also further 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 four-day working week?

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

As a result of having to work fewer 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.

Doctor and former public health director John Ashton believes that a four-day week – without loss of pay – could “reduce sickness absence [and] improve morale, which would improve the quality of what people are doing when they are working.”

Ashton has also highlighted the benefits a shorter week would have on family life in the UK, as well as creating more time for people to participate in voluntary activities for the betterment of their local communities.  

Ashton argues that the NHS should adopt a four-day working week to address the burnout that is seeing health service staff quit or retire early.

“I think the four-day week will come over the next 10 years, and if the NHS doesn’t embrace it, the labour shortages will become even worse,” he told The Big Issue. There is also evidence to suggest that a shorter working 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,” said Ryle.

Could shifting to a three-day weekend help solve the recruitment crisis?

The number of people who are not in work and not looking, is growing. This “economically inactive” group counts one in five of the working population among it, and is 1.2 percentage points higher than before the pandemic. That’s one in five people aged 16 to 64 who have completely removed themselves from the labour market. They have decided that work is just not working for them.  

But a four-day working week could be a more doable option for those with long-term health conditions, childcare or other caring responsibilities, or who are over 50. 

“There are still more than half a million more people out of work than there were before the pandemic began and firms simply can’t find the workers to fill their jobs”, said Tony Wilson, director at the Institute for Employment Studies.

South Cambridgeshire Council recently became the first in the UK to trial a four-day working week, explicitly to attract new staff. And it went so well the council has decided to extend the trial by another 12 months. 

Around 450 mainly desk-based employees working for the  Liberal Democrat-led counsel could choose to take Monday or Friday off, while continuing to receive the same pay.

The council hopes that the change will address its recruitment and retention crisis, which meant one in three vacancies was unfilled after the first three months of the year. With a more attractive workplace offer, the council hopes to cut the cost of paying agency staff who were brought in to fill 23 office-based vacancies, which, over the space of a year, would cost the council upwards of £2 million – that’s double the cost of hiring permanent staff members.

The trial also hopes to attract a wider mixture of people to work for the council – including working parents and people with caring responsibilities, who would find a four-day working week a cheaper and more flexible alternative to the standard monday to friday. 

“I am really pleased with the way this trial’s gone,” said the council leader, Bridget Smith. 

“We look at those 52 days off a year not as a right but as a gift, for working much more intensely and working smarter.”

What did the UK’s biggest ever trial of the four-day working week discover?

After a six-month trial involving over 2,900 employees at 61 organisations, the results are in.

Almost every employer that took part, ranging from a local chippy to large corporations, an animation studio to digital banking, have decided to continue with the arrangement after the trial ended.

While the impacts on employees were as positive as you might assume – seven in 10 reported lower levels of burnout – it seems that the changes benefited the businesses, too. 

Not only did employees report significantly improved wellbeing, but despite losing one whole working day each week, on average the companies’ revenue stayed broadly the same, even rising by 1.4% on average.

Employees were far less likely to quit than before the trial, and there was a 65%reduction in the number of sick days.

Announced in January last year, “hundreds” of companies expressed their interest in taking part in the trial that gained widespread news coverage. Those that signed up to participate range from racing games designer Hutch, to the Royal Society of Biology, a Sheffield-based robots company, a housing society in Merthyr Tydfil, and London brewery Pressure Drop Brewing. 

Organised by campaign group 4 Day Week Global in partnership with think tank Autonomy and the 4 Day Week UK Campaign, the companies were evaluated by researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College in the USA.

“Across a wide variety of different sectors of the economy, these incredible results show that the four-day week actually works” said Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign.

“Surely the time has now come to begin rolling it out across the country.”

Have there been other trials in the UK?

In Scotland, a trial of the four-day working week was conducted by the Scottish government in 2022 with wide-ranging positive results. One participant, Advice Direct Scotland, reported that just two months into the trial that employee wellbeing had improved, in turn boosting the business. 

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More than one in four people in Scotland already work four days a week, according to ​​the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). The Scottish government has pledged to fund further pilots in 2023, with potential to include a more diverse group of businesses.

IPPR Scotland senior research fellow Rachel Statham said trials must now be carried out in “all kinds of workplaces”, including non-office jobs, to provide a thorough test of how the idea works in practice.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon had promised 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”.

Which other countries are trialing a four-day working week?

Alongside its UK-based trial, 4 Day Week Global also orchestrated a global trial with 903 employees in countries including the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. 

Of those who filled out the final survey, none said that they were leaning against or not planning on continuing with a four-day week. And 18 out of the 27 said they are definitely keeping it.

Researchers also found that staff working a four-day week were less likely to leave for a better paid job elsewhere, and somewhat unexpectedly, people started living greener lifestyles. 

”There was a small but significant increase in self-reports of household recycling, walking and cycling rather than driving, and buying eco-friendly products,” according to the report.

With a more open schedule, it would make sense that people have the time to sort the recycling or fix up their bike. So a four-day week could also help in the fight against climate change.

 Last year the Japanese government stated in its annual economic policy guideline that it encourages companies to offer an optional four-day working week to their employees, and it looks like many companies are taking the advice. 

Major Japanese conglomerate Panasonic will give some employees the option of working a four-day working week up until March 2023 as it experiments with the new model of working. 

“It is our responsibility to ensure a work-life balance to our diverse workers,” Panasonic President Yuki Kusumi told journalists in January.

Hitachi Ltd., Mizuho Financial Group Inc. and Fast Retailing Co, the operator of the clothing chain Uniqlo, is already implementing a four-day working week, The Japan Times has reported. 

In a survey of 4,000 companies, Japan’s labour ministry found that 8.5% of companies were giving employees more than two days a week off.

Which businesses have tried a shorter working week?

Businesses are becoming increasingly interested in the potential benefits of giving employees an extra day off, with the British arm of camera company Canon becoming one of the latest businesses to trial a four-day working week without a pay cut. 

Online bank Atom Bank has introduced a four-day week for its 430 staff with the company seeing a 500% increase in job applications almost immediately after the announcement. 

“Before Covid, the conventional wisdom was you had to commute in, sit at a desk all day and repeat that process when you commuted home,” Mark Mullen, who has led the Durham-based bank since 2014, told The BBC. 

“Everyone is expected to stick to it,” he continued. “I can’t be sending my staff emails on a Friday, I can’t expect them to respond to them.”

After a successful pilot in New Zealand, Unilever announced it would extend its four-day working week trial to employees in Australia from November 2022.

Over two thirds of Unilever’s New Zealand employees said they had a better work-life balance under the trial, which also saw a 34% drop in absenteeism.

However not all employers have found that it’s worked for them. Science research foundation the Wellcome Trust scrapped plans to trial a four-day week in 2019 for its 800 head office staff, finding that it would be “too operationally complex”.

The decision was the result of a three-month study which found compressing work into a Monday to Thursday window could harm productivity of some workers and negatively affect the wellbeing of others.

What impact does a four-day working week have on productivity?

Campaigners have long claimed that making employees work for four days instead of five actually increases productivity.

Researchers in Iceland found that a four-day work week, without a pay cut, improved workers’ well-being and productivity.

For four years, researchers tracked 2,500 employees who reduced their work week from 40 hours to 35 or 36 hours, according to a study published by Autonomy, a progressive UK think tank. Participants in the study worked in a range of jobs including, offices, playschools and social service offices.

The researchers found that “worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.”

At the same time, productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces, the study said.

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