Could a 4-day working week become a reality? How everyone can benefit from flexible working practices.

19 October 2022

2nd November is National Stress Awareness Day. Linking in with this, we’re looking at how changes to the way we work, especially since the pandemic, are leading a growing number of employers to rethink the 5-day working week.

A study by YouGov found that 63% of employees in the UK would like a 4-day week, and Deloitte’s Women @ Work 2022: A Global Outlook report reveals that burnout is cited as driving 40% of working women’s resignations.

Advocates for flexible working believe a shorter, 4-day week could improve employees’ mental health, helping them to feel happier, more fulfilled and therefore produce better results in work. 

And a 4-day working week could even mean improvements in a business’s carbon footprint! By reducing the number of journeys travelled to work each week, carbon dioxide emissions could fall by 4.2% according to this report by Knight, Rosa and Schor. 

But are there really benefits of working a 4-day week for both employees and employers, or could it ultimately make little difference to our lives?

What could a 4-day working week look like? 

A 4-day week may be implemented in a number of ways:

  • Cutting hours by one day but keeping workload the same.
  • Cutting hours by one day and reducing workload accordingly.
  • Employees continue to work 5 days, but daily hours are reduced to work the equivalent of 4 days.
  • Employees work only 4 days, but daily hours are increased to work the equivalent of 5 days.

Advantages and disadvantages arise for each point, and a major change in working arrangements will undoubtedly raise questions for employers. Is pay more important to an employee, or the number of hours worked per day? If more employees are needed to cover gaps in resource, is there room in the budget to accommodate them? 

How could employees benefit from a 4-day working week? 

If a 4-day working week became a reality, how could employees expect to benefit from the change?

  • Reduced childcare costs. On average, families in the UK spend £62.13 a week on after school clubs, and the cost of sending a child under 4 to nursery or to a childminder is prohibitive for many people. Shorter hours or working one day less a week could make a significant financial difference to many families, especially at a time when cost of living is rising – although this must be balanced against lower pay overall where working hours are reduced.
  • Time to spend with the family. This strengthens family bonds, builds children’s self-esteem and is good for everybody.
  • Time to learn new skills, exercise and relax with hobbies. According to the Independent, during the lockdown when many people were working flexibly from home, 24% of employees said they learned a language, 15% took up baking, and 13% spent time in the gardening. The satisfaction of learning new skills and the joy of spending time doing what you love has untold benefits for mental health. 

And what about benefits of a 4-day working week for employers? 

A 4-day working week must work for the employer too. How have employers who’ve made the move to shorter weeks or compressed hours benefited? 

Increased productivity

The most productive countries in the world are Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway. Interestingly, people in these countries work hours nearly equivalent to a 4-day week. In Denmark, for example, the average hours worked in 2020 were 32.5 and in Norway the figure is 33.7 hours a week.  

On the other end of the scale, Greece is less productive than Scandinavian countries and most European countries, and they work an average 38.8 hours a week. 

Stanford University conducted a study of the link between hours worked and productivity. They found that productivity dramatically drops after 8 hours of work, meaning that compressing 5 days of working hours into 4 days may prove to be counterproductive.

Greater equality

A 4-day working week may support a business’s move towards greater workplace gender equality. Research carried out by Sage into the gender pay gap found that around 2 million people in Britain do not work because of childcare issues, and nearly 90% of these are women. A 4-day working week, or more flexible working hours arrangements, may reduce childcare costs to allow more women to work. 

Decreased absenteeism

In 2020, absence from work due to mental health cost the UK economy a staggering £14 billion.

Decreased sickness absenteeism may be another advantage of the 4-day working week, subject to how the employee’s hours are arranged for the remainder of the week. 

A study conducted in Sweden found that nurses in a care home who worked 6 hours across 5 days were less likely to take sick leave because they were more rested and refreshed. These nurses were also found to be more engaged with their work because they organised 85% more activities for the patients they cared for.

Potential drawbacks for employers and employees when introducing a 4-day working week 

There’s no silver bullet to flexible working, especially a major change such as a shift to a 4-day working week, and the policy does carry potential drawbacks. 

  • Compressed hours and shorter lunch breaks. If more hours are packed into fewer days this may increase levels of stress, burn-out and general unhappiness amongst employees. For employers this will almost certainly have a negative impact on overall productivity.
  • Pay may be decreased. A working week change may lower the wage bill for a business, but it could also lower employees’ morale and cost more in the long run. If an employee leaves to seek a higher salary, recruitment and missing resource has time and cost consequences for a business.
  • Poorer teamwork. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Programme Director at 4 Day Week Global, found that when employees are feeling under time pressure to finish their work in fewer hours, there is less collaboration between colleagues.
  • Dissatisfied customers. If clients and customers are unable to access a service or employees due to closures or reduced hours, they may become frustrated and take their business elsewhere. It has been suggested that AI and chatbots could overcome this customer service issue, but – as we all know – sometimes you just need to talk to a person to solve a problem.
  • Greater disconnection. Employees who are already disengaged at work become more disconnected when they work a 4-day week, according to Gallup. 

This guide has been prepared by Adroit Legal Services and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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