Is the UK ready for a four-day work week?

Oct 14, 2020

4 mins

Is the UK ready for a four-day work week?
Madeleine Crean


The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown hospitality industries into chaos, put the rat race on pause, and sunk economies to record lows. It has turned the working world on its head, but among the discord, old and tired working patterns have proved themselves to be unnecessary, and the prospect of a better workplace has emerged. Companies have had no choice but to allow flexible working arrangements—and it’s clear that employees want them to stay. So that begs the question, could this be the time for the age-old dream of a four-day work week to become reality?

A bit of history…

The structure of a five-day workweek is thoroughly ingrained in the habits of most British employees. The dreaded Monday comes around after some much-needed time off, and again we are working 9 to 5, waiting for Friday. But it hasn’t always been this way: back in the 19th century, 10 to 12-hour days, six days a week, was the norm. This led campaigners around the world to push for an eight-hour day in the 20th century. Now British workers put in an average of 42 hours a week—but is this still too much?

What the UK wants today

The British population seems to think so, with a YouGov survey showing that 63% would back a four-day work week. Another recent study, conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), revealed that 60% of UK employees work longer hours than they want, with 24% overworking by 10 hours a week. On the flip side, 78% of employees who work flexible hours believe it’s had a positive impact on their lives.

Longer hours don’t necessarily lead to heightened productivity either. In Denmark, where workers put in four hours less per week on average than those in the UK, productivity is 23.5% higher, according to a Trades Union Congress (TUC) analysis. As the pandemic forces the entire global economy to rejig itself, what better time than now to look again at our working hours?

“If people are more motivated, they are less burned out and less stressed out, and obviously going to do a better job in the hours they do.” - Joe Ryle

The preferred option, of course, is a 32-hour week with no reduction in pay. This is something that Joe Ryle, campaign officer for the 4-Day Week Campaign, believes is possible for many companies. He says that losing the fifth day would boost productivity. “If people are more motivated, they are less burned out and less stressed out, and obviously going to do a better job in the hours they do,” he said.

Trials back Ryle’s view: in 2019, Microsoft Japan tested the four-day working week for a month and found its employees were happier and productivity increased by a staggering 40%. MLR Recruitment did the same in the UK, and found the staff was happier, more productive, and took fewer sick days. After such overwhelmingly positive feedback, the company decided to keep their four-day work week for good—and keep staff on the same pay.

“[A shorter week] It allows people to be more grounded and come to work with more energy.” - Mary Ann Stephenson

Shorter working weeks have a dual effect, explains Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group: they improve our mental health and offer a more rounded lifestyle. “Some people work too many hours and others don’t work enough hours,” she said. “You have a group of workers who are overworked and highly stressed, which is bad for their mental health. You also have a group of workers who aren’t working enough hours to support themselves, and that is also bad for their mental health. One of the ideas behind a four-day week is that you’re able to redistribute that work a bit more evenly.

“[A shorter week] allows people to do other things, whether that’s self-care, community activities, spending time with friends and family, activism, or whatever else. It allows people to be more grounded and come to work with more energy.”

The Covid-19 angle

In the current climate, it’s not only a productivity boost that a four-day week might bring. It could also offer a lifeline to our hard-hit economy. We’ve seen the Government offer support to businesses and workers affected by the pandemic—and we’ve also seen that working patterns can change when they really need to.

“A lot of employers have found, particularly since Covid, that actually there are all sorts of ways of organizing work differently,” said Stephenson. “Once you have to make those changes, people realize that they’re not as impossible as they thought they were.”

During the 2019 election Corbyn’s Labour Party campaigned for a 32-hour work week, a policy that the Conservatives vetoed at the time. But now, critics have fallen silent. Could it be the saving grace the economy needs? The independent think tank Autonomy has suggested that a four-day week with no loss of pay in the public sector could create up to half a million much-needed jobs in the UK and curb an expected increase in unemployment over the coming months. Furthermore, a Survation poll commissioned by Autonomy, published in October 2020, shows that 79% of business leaders are open to the idea of a four-day week.

Will Stronge, the director of Autonomy, claims it is, in part, about keeping as many people in work as possible. “In order to make sure we don’t have severe austerity again, we need to make sure that we redistribute what cash we have, or incomes, among the population,” he said. “The important thing is job creation and job retention. We need as many potential solutions as we can, creating jobs in the public sector, but also keeping people on the payroll.”

“…it is a massive victory in itself that the Government is officially talking about shorter hours and subsidizing them.” - Joe Ryle

The Treasury has announced the replacement of furlough with the Job Support Scheme from November 1, 2020, for six months. The scheme tops up wages for those on reduced hours due to the pandemic, which means that employees can be paid 77% of their wages while working 33% of their hours. Campaigners say it is a step in the right direction, but it has its drawbacks.

Ryle believes that the scheme needs improvement. “It’s actually cheaper for employers to keep one person on full-time rather than employ two people part-time under this scheme,” he said. “I think the design of it is completely flawed. But it is a massive victory in itself that the Government is officially talking about shorter hours and subsidizing them. This is a partial move in the right direction.”

It seems like the UK will have to warm up to the idea of a shorter working week in one form or another. More innovative solutions are needed to keep the economy afloat and the four-day week might be one of them, through the pandemic, and beyond.

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