Is a four-day working week the way forward for British workplaces?
25th February 2022
A 40-hour, five-day working week is the norm for workplaces across Britain, but is it really fair that we only get two days of rest a week? Charlotte Phillips investigates how realistic it would be to implement a four-day work week into British workplaces.
Working a 9-5, five days a week is something we all expect to do at some point in our lives, but what if we were given an alternative option?
When Covid-19 turned everyone’s working lives upside down, people had to adjust and become a lot more flexible when it came to their jobs.
In 2020, approximately 5.6 million people worked mainly from home and had to manage their own schedules, which meant that a lot of the time they could work at whatever hours they wanted.
That is why a four-day working week is more relevant than ever, with its main advantage being that it gives the individual flexibility in how they want to work, and what suits their lifestyle.
The five-day week was standardised in 1926 by American industrialist Henry Ford, who implemented a forty-hour workweek for his employees. Currently in Britain, working hours are limited to a certain amount per week.
There is a limit of 40 hours a week for under-18s, and 48 hours for over-18s, but the latter can be opted out of by employees if desired.
However, a lot of people are petitioning on websites such as change.org that we should either work less or in a condensed way, and that Ford's workweek model is outdated.
One of the main variations of a four-day working week is one that is condensed, where employees work longer hours for four days to get the fifth day off – usually they would increase their eight hour shifts to 10 hours.
It is intended to allow employees to have a better work-life balance, increase productivity, and reduce things such as commuting time and costs.
Advanced Clinical Specialist Practitioner Amy Elliott, 33, has worked a compressed four-day work week for just over six months in her current job, but for two years in her previous employment. She mainly gravitated towards it so she could spend more time with her family and friends, and found it to be extremely beneficial for her lifestyle.
“Condensing my hours has definitely helped me productivity wise. I find that it is easier to spend more quality time with my family over Saturday and Sunday as I have usually managed all of the life admin and household chores on my day off during the week,” she said.
She mentioned that a big thing for her was the decreased childcare costs, claiming that “dropping to a four-day working week has meant that nursery fees have gone down by £296 a month which has been a huge financial help. Also, in this day and age where life costs mean both parents have to work, it allows me to have a day to be a mummy!"
It has improved her social life and has meant that she can meet with friends when places are quieter during the week. “Things like shopping, banking, life admin – things like haircuts, are so much easier and less busy during the week which makes life a lot less stressful for me."
Amy believes that working a four-day working week has led her to have a better quality of life, and that although she is fortunate with her annual leave allowance, she thinks that it would really benefit those in the private sector where their entitlement is considerably smaller.
“Another thing is that spending more time at home during the daylight hours means I can get a lot more chores done which can’t be done after working.”
Belgium is currently in the early stages of reforming their labour market after the aftermath of Covid-19. Their primary argument is that the pandemic has changed the way that a lot of people work across a range of job types, so it is only fair to give workers flexibility in organising their work week.
This would mean that it would not be government-enforced, but instead an optional way of working which can be chosen if it fits people’s lifestyles. In the proposal, the hours worked would stay the same and workers would have to work nine-and-a-half hours a day to get the extra day off.
The main problem with this is that working nine-and-a-half hour days as opposed to eight can be very tiring for some people.
Consultant Nurse Deborah Jardine-Barnes, 52, has worked a compressed week for over 10 years for childcare reasons, and feels that it has improved her productivity and mental state. However, she does acknowledge some of its drawbacks.
“I do feel really quite tired by a Thursday afternoon sometimes as it is a lot of hours to work,” she says. “Unfortunately, I also still have not got out of the habit of checking emails and doing work on some occasions, which defeats the object of compressed working altogether.”
This seems to be a very common issue, as research by Avia has found that 72% of workers are checking their emails outside of work hours, even on weekends. The increased usage of technology in the workplace has created difficulty for workers to switch off from their work-mode, as they can always be contacted.
However, Deborah does state that “I get a lot more work done either side of the hours of 9-5 because I am not interrupted by other staff. I am an early morning person so having the flexibility to work adjusted hours really suits me.”
“A four-day week would facilitate a healthier and less stressed workforce.”—Louise Rodger
If people are prepared to work longer days to gain the benefit of an extra day off, and it does not negatively affect the company they work for, it could be argued that there is no reason why the option is not offered to them.
In this day and age, people are now working in numerous careers and changing their jobs frequently as a result of their lifestyle and life aspirations. Over 44% of millennials do not expect to stay in the same job for longer than two years, and only 16% envision themselves being in the same job in a decade’s time.
If people were given more flexibility, then they may want to stay in the same job for longer. Louise Rodger, 40, works as a full-time Director for the Association for Financial Markets in Europe. Due to the high stress-level of her job, she said that she would jump at the chance to compress her working week if she was given the option.
She believes that it would make her either just as productive as she currently is, or potentially more productive. She said, “Based on my current workload, it would be challenging, and I would need to be very organised to do it. I would be motivated to work the longer hours knowing that I have three days each week that I do not work.
“In my sector, it would be completely realistic to work Monday-to-Thursday as Friday is traditionally a ‘quiet day’ in banking.”
Although, she did raise the opinion that it could be unpopular with our current government and is unlikely to gain traction. “I can envisage business leaders and those driven by profit being unsupportive.
"Having said that, just because it needs a lot of thought doesn’t mean it cannot be done. It would be a very progressive thing to do, and society would see the benefits.”
She said that if her company and the British government were committed to implementing it, then she would be able to reallocate her workload in order to work a four-day work week.
“In my industry people do work long hours and advancements in technology has supported us all in becoming more efficient than ever before. With this increased use of technology comes additional stress, we are always contactable on a variety of mediums.
“A four-day week would facilitate a healthier and less stressed workforce.”
According to a report done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a significant number of older workers would benefit from more flexibility in the workplace. Even though she is retired, 61-year-old ex-NHS worker Linda White is supportive of a compressed four-day working week.
“I would definitely have considered working longer hours so I could have a four-day week. I can’t see many reasons not to, but I think it would be up to personal preference at the end of the day,” she says.
She questions how balanced working five days out of the week is, claiming that a four-day working week is “definitely the way forward. I think if people knew they only had to work four days, their productivity would hopefully increase by quite a bit”.
She was almost certain that it would have worked in her previous HR job if the days were sorted fairly, as “obviously not everyone would be able to have Monday and Fridays off.
“However, when I worked on the Wards as a Ward Clerk you would need to be there five days ideally as you were patient facing and mostly there is only one Ward Clerk so you wouldn't be able to get cover.”
Prior to her retirement, she went from full-time to 4 days a week. “I obviously didn't do longer hours, so my pay was reduced but it made such a difference to my week.”
The more controversial variation of a four-day working week is where people work their normal hours for four days and still get paid for the fifth.
Both Spain and Scotland are in the process of designing schemes based on this idea but are still in the early stages. They are planning to implement a 32-hour workweek with no loss of pay and are relying on government funding.
Iceland trialled a four-day working week where workers were paid the same amount for shorter hours between 2015-2019. Over 2,500 people took part, which is 1.3% of the country’s overall population.
A vast range of different sectors got involved – including offices, hospitals and preschools, and they all moved from working 40 hours a week to either 35 or 36.
Workers claimed that they felt significantly less stressed and that they could see an improvement in their health and work-life balance. Since the success of the trials, 86% of Iceland’s workers have started working shorter hours for the same pay or are in the process of gaining the right to it.
According to a poll undertaken by YouGov, in 2018, 74% of people in Britain felt so stressed that they were overwhelmed or unable to cope, so if we followed suit of Iceland this could be significantly reduced.
Mel Dawkins, a member of the Growth, Economic Development and Communities Cabinet Committee, and Kent County Council, believes that a similar work-structure should be implemented into British workplaces.
“The ideal situation is to do a four-day week of eight hours a day, rather than trying to fit in loads of hours into a shorter amount of time. I think if they can do it in Iceland, I don’t see why they can’t do it here." she says.
"It probably has to be through a shift in attitude in society because people would do it and then they’d just work overtime.”
For this to work, she did say that the cost of living would have to be aligned with people having a decent salary, otherwise “there wouldn’t be any point. People in retail don’t make a lot of money, so they’d just want to work the extra day anyway."
She believes that retail workers “could be at an advantage because they’d get their full-time salary plus extra. They could make it law that people would only be able to do x number of hours a week or something.”
She considers how some workplaces could get around problems and states that flexible working hours and giving people the option is definitely really important.
“In a school for example, if you’re a teacher, you have to be there every day really, but you would just employ another teacher or member of staff who just fills in those days.”
“To make a business your own you have to be around it, because people buy from people they know.”—Julie Nuttall
However much of a nice idea it would be to implement in Britain, it may not be realistic for everyone and may be too idealistic. Some people would not be able to take part because of the job they work in, even if they wanted to.
Julie Nuttall is a small independent business owner and has run The Cheese Shop in Canterbury for almost four years. She doesn’t have any official employees and the shop is open seven-and-a-half days a week, six of which she works.
This means that a four-day working week would not be a realistic move for her or her business.
“It wouldn’t be possible for me in retail because I’m only just breaking even now, so if I lost a day, I’d be making a loss”, she says.
“I don’t actually pay myself a salary, I do my job for the love of it. I’m not saying I’m not making anything; I’m covering the shop; I’m investing in its future.”
She would have to rely on government funding as well as take employees on to make a four-day working week with no loss possible, but she is not in a financial position yet to hire any full-time staff.
She said that she could choose to do less hours, but that it would ultimately affect her earnings and income. “In retail, if you’re not open, you don’t get as many customers because you need to be open. It could be that one customer that comes on a Wednesday afternoon that makes a difference to your livelihood.”
Julie does often question whether she would rather be out walking the dog, or meeting up with her friends, but maintains that when the shop has to be open, she has to have somebody working in it.
One of the main disadvantages of small-business ownership is the time-commitment aspect, and the fact that the time put into it reflects into the outcome. All the responsibilities are placed on the owner, which can be extremely stressful.
She emphasised that “to make a business your own you have to be around it, because people buy from people they know.”
The same applies for those that are self-employed. As of July 2021, there were approximately 4.3 million self-employed workers in Britain, which means that it would need be considered if and how they would be able to participate in a four-day working week.
Caroline Harvey, 45, is a self-employed Kent-based beautician, whose main practice is non-surgical facelifts. She works on average about four to five hours a day, but her schedule changes on a weekly basis. On her leftover days, she spends a lot of her time cleaning and doing admin and paperwork.
She believes that a four-day working week would not be viable for most self-employed service sector workers due to reduced income making it nearly impossible for some to afford necessities.
“People in jobs with quite rigid structures would definitely benefit from a four-day work week, but that would put the self-employed at a disadvantage.”
She said, “my workdays vary due to demand, so I do need to be flexible with my availability. On some days, I can start at 9am and finish at 9:30pm, but then I might not have any work the following day. My job definitely does not allow me to work set days and times.”
There is a lot of uncertainty that comes along with being self-employed, as things such as shifts in consumer demand can put a halt to the growth of a business. Someone that is self-employed would need to have the reassurance that they would always have a stable income if working a four-day week, otherwise it would not be worth it for them.
Caroline said that for a four-day work week to be put into motion successfully in Britain, “then it would need to work for everyone, so if the government could find a way around that and maybe give us extra funding to make up for the lost money then it could work.”
The primary thing that both the British government and company leaders would need to take account is equality of the sectors. It could be argued that it is evident that the finance and healthcare sectors would more than likely be able to transition to a four-day week with little complications.
However, those who are self-employed, own small businesses, or work in media, news and entertainment may not have the capacity or ability to convert to the unconventional workweek structure.
As well as that, some businesses may not want to give their workers the option to condense their hours, and this would put employees who work for more willing companies at a significant advantage.
It could be argued that the only way that a four-day working week could be the way forward for Britain would be if every single person was given a choice to opt in for it.
Morning Ireland presenter Gill Stedman debates whether a four-day work week is a dream, or reality:
Alan Baldock, a Canterbury City Councillor and manager of a utility company, considers some of the factors that could be holding us back from putting a four-day working week into practice.
“We have to consider shift work, people who work in warehouses or shops, you could have four working weeks, but you would always have to have people in on all five days or six days or seven”, he says. "So, there’s always got to be an element of some cover, and that of course needs managing."
He raised he issue that “companies would have to be really happy that there’d be a significant improvement in productivity to pay for the potential loss in output during those hours."
He admitted that it is a tough situation, and suggested that it might be an advantage if you could shut somewhere down for one day, and only do your business in four days, “but most companies would choose to have a fifth day to make more money, wouldn’t they?”
He said that he thinks that for some jobs it would be really good, and he sees nothing against it – just that lots of difficulties will come about.
For example, the British government would need to get on board to provide funding and reassurance for people who are sceptical about the concept of a four-day working week.
Alan finished by saying “I’ve seen it work for some people in my company and friends and family, but only in similar job types.
"I think a four-day working week could definitely be the way forward for Britain, but management and realistic factors such as funding, impartiality and giving people the option need to be taken into account for it to succeed.”
As beneficial as a four-day working week is – whether than be a compressed one or one without loss of pay, the individual businesses, employees and British government would need to weigh up the positives and negatives and decide if it would be worth it for them.
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