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Employment

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

Calls for a four-day working week to improve mental health and work-life balance have grown louder since the Covid-19 pandemic sparked a greater desire for flexibility at work.

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

The UK is running the biggest ever trial of the four-day working week, with over 3,000 employees taking part at 70 businesses. With companies taking part ranging from a brewery to a bank, game design company and a local fish and chip shop, the trial has captured the imagination of overworked employees across the country.

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

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What is a four-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 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?

Not in its truest form, no. For example, workers in Belgium will be given the right to request a four-day week without a reduction in pay, but campaigners have said it’s not what they’re asking for. 

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Under the reform, employees will be allowed to work up to 9.5 hours a day – the equivalent of 9am to 6.30pm –  meaning they will be able to squash a week of work into four longer days. This could be further extended to a 10-hour day through a workplace trade union agreement.

Flemish prime minister Alexander De Croo said the measures are being introduced “to give people and companies more freedom to arrange their work time.”

But campaigners have highlighted that allowing compressed hours is not in line with the goals of transitioning to a four-day week

Responding to the Belgium government’s announcement, Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, welcomed more flexibility for workers to choose when they work, but stressed that “compressing a normal five day week into four-days is not the answer to tackling burnout, stress and overwork.”

“It’s essential that the move to a four-day week involves a reduction in working hours, with no loss of pay for employees,” he continued. 

The UK government has similar plans to make flexible working the default, which would, like Belgium, allow workers to request to compress their working week into four days. 

Under both the Belgium policy, and proposed UK policy, employers would still be allowed to deny the request within reason.

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.

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Why do campaigners want a four-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.

Top doctor John Ashton believes that a four-day week – without loss of pay – could “reduce sickness absence, 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.  

Labour shortages are hitting many sectors of the UK economy including, transport, hospitality, education, and the NHS, putting pressure on employees to deal with increasingly unsustainable workloads. 

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. 

In teaching, too, high numbers of teachers leave the profession due to some of the longest working hours in Europe, at an average of 51 per week for full timers. Think-tank Autonomy has argued that a shorter week would prevent teacher burnout and make them less likely to leave the profession. 

Autonomy has pointed to Forest Gate Community School in east London where pupils and teachers finished at 12.10 on Friday, resulting in happier teachers and higher grades

The UK is running the biggest ever trial of a four-day working week, how’s it going?

The biggest ever trial of a four-day working week has kicked off in the UK, with more than 3,000 staff members at 70 firms taking part. 

The highly anticipated six-month pilot involves companies across the four British nations, and aims to shed some light on the impact a permanent three-day weekend can have on wellbeing, productivity, the environment and gender equality.

The trial is being organised by campaign group  4 Day Week Global in partnership with think tank Autonomy and the 4 Day Week UK Campaign, and will be evaluated by researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College in the USA.

Announced in January, the trial captured the imagination of the British public and businesses alike, with “hundreds” of companies expressing their interest in taking part. 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. 

A trial of the shorter working week is already underway in Scotland, where the Scottish parliament has been urged to expand on the ongoing trial after research found there was overwhelming support for the project.

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.

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”.

“The pandemic has served to intensify interest in and support for more flexible working practices, which could include a shift to a four-day working week,” a Scottish government spokesperson said.

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

Ireland, too, is undertaking a six-month trial of the four-day week, which kicked off in February 2022. At least 20 companies have signed up to the trial orchestrated by 4 Day Week Global. 

University College Dublin and Boston College will research the impacts of the new way of working on carbon emissions, productivity and wellbeing, compared with a standard five-day work week.

Alongside its UK-based trial, 4 Day Week Global is also orchestrating four-day working week pilots in the US and Canada, with 38 companies signed up so far.

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 per cent of companies were giving employees more than two days a week off.

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Which businesses have tried a four-day 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 per cent increase in job applications almost immediately after the announcement. 

The bank’s employees will now work 34 hours over the course of four days and get to take Monday or Friday off. The past system saw each employee work 37.5 hours per week, meaning that their working days will be longer. 

“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,” said 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.”

Unilever announced last November it would be trialing a four-day working week in New Zealand. The trial will run from December 2020 to December 2021, with researchers from the Sydney’s University of Technology (UTS) Business School measuring how performance fares.

Microsoft trialed a four-day working week for a month in Japan in August 2019 and reported a 40 per cent rise in productivity.

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.

How could a four-day working week help the environment?

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, 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.

“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,” said Ryle.

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.

Does a four-day week cost more money?

A four-day working week is not without its detractors.

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.

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