An increasing number of businesses are beginning to offer greater flexibility to their employees, including the option of a 4 day work week. There are lots of benefits to be gained from this type of working arrangement – for employees, businesses, and the environment.
The typical five-day working model is more of a cultural norm than a necessity for many firms. But after the events of the last couple of years, where scores of employers had no choice but to implement remote working and flexible schedules, a renewed awareness of work-life balance has taken hold.
Is it time to rethink our approach to the working week? Could a 4 day week benefit your employees and business, or would productivity and profit suffer? Let’s take a look.
What is a 4 day work week?
A 4 day work week is a reduced-hours arrangement, whereby employees work four days and enjoy a three-day weekend. Crucially, however, there’s no reduction in pay.
The idea is to prioritise smarter working and employee wellbeing, which offers social, economic, and environmental benefits.
The 4 day week differs from compressed hours, because employees are working fewer hours for the same pay, instead of attempting to cram their standard full-time hours into fewer days.
It’s by no means a new concept – Iceland ran a 4 day work week pilot between 2015 and 2019, which was a resounding success. But more and more businesses are recognising that an improved work-life balance is the new frontier for attracting and retaining employees and increasing productivity.
Back in 2019, a YouGov Eurotrack survey found that 63% of Britons supported the idea of a 4 day work week (unless it was damaging to the economy). 71% believed that having an extra day off each week would lead to a happier nation.
More recently, a 2021 survey by recruitment company Reed revealed that 83% of UK employees are in favour of a 4 day work week.
Impact of COVID-19
The past two and a half years have given businesses time to consider the way in which they operate. Most notably, the number of hours and days they require employees to work.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that output-focused, reduced-hours working is the way forward for many industries. It is also a necessary strategy for maintaining a competitive edge.
Similarly, it’s been an opportunity for a large portion of the labour force to experience a new way of working, leading to a re-evaluation of what’s most important to them.
As we emerge from the pandemic, quality of life is now the focus for many workers. Consequently, an unprecedented number of employees in the UK and US have been quitting their jobs throughout 2021 and 2022 as part of ‘The Great Resignation’.
With 64% of workers saying they would look for a new job if they were expected to return to the office full time, a 4 day work week may be the solution.
World’s biggest trial of the 4 day work week
Currently, more than 3,300 workers across 70 UK companies are taking part in the world’s biggest ever trial of the 4 day work week. Participating businesses range from a local fish and chip shop in Norfolk to Charity Bank in Kent.
Running for six months, from June to November 2022, the pilot programme is being coordinated by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with the 4 Day Week Campaign, the UK think tank Autonomy, and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University, and Boston College.
Researchers will monitor and assess participating workers and businesses to measure the impact of the 4 day work week on productivity, employee wellbeing, the environment, and gender equality.
Benefits of offering a 4 day week to employees
When working a 4 day week, the most obvious benefit to employees is an extra day off without a cut in pay. That’s one less day of commuting and more time to switch off and recharge, spend time with friends and family, and pursue personal interests.
Essentially, they can enjoy an improved work-life balance and take better care of their health, wellbeing, and happiness. As a result, employees are more motivated, focused, and productive on the days they are at work – which is a big win for employers.
Let’s take a look at the potential benefits in more detail.
1. Increased productivity
A recent study by Voucher Cloud revealed that, on average, UK office workers are productive for less than three hours each day. That’s a huge amount of time and money being wasted, suggesting that it’s entirely possible for employees to complete their work over fewer days – if the circumstances are right.
Proponents of the 4 day week have long suggested that working fewer days increases productivity, and there’s overwhelming evidence to support this idea.
- Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, reported a 20% boost in employee productivity following a 4 day work week pilot in 2018. As a result, the company made the policy permanent.
- In the summer of 2019, Microsoft Japan trialed a 4 day work week, reporting a 40% increase in productivity across the business.
- In April 2020, the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry conducted a two-year trial of flexible working arrangements, including a 4 day week, which saw more than half of its 820-strong workforce reporting higher productivity. This work schedule is now a permanent option for employees.
Experts have known for a long time that overwork leads to a decrease in total output, as evidenced by Stanford University’s in-depth analysis of the relationship between hours worked and productivity.
Whether due to stress, fatigue, loss of concentration, or some other factor, overworked employees are simply less efficient (and more likely to make mistakes) than those working fewer hours.
2. Employees are happier and healthier
With three days off and no reduction in pay, employees have more time to rest and unwind and spend time with loved ones. They can also focus on activities and personal pursuits that positively impact their physical, emotional, and mental health.
All these factors contribute to increased happiness, higher energy and motivation levels, and improved efficiency in the workplace.
Employees are also better protected against more severe and long-term health effects of overwork. For example, chronic mental health issues, raised cortisol levels, exhaustion and burnout, substance use, and even cardiovascular diseases and strokes.
According to Mind, a mental health charity in England and Wales, the overall number of people reporting mental health problems is increasing:
- 1 in 4 people in England experience a mental health problem each year
- 1 in 6 people experience a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week
- 21% revealed they have called in sick to avoid going to work
The total economic cost of ill health in the UK is estimated to be over £100 billion a year, with poor mental health among workers costing employers between £42 billion and £45 billion annually.
According to 4 Day Week Global, 78% of employees who work only 4 days a week are happier and less stressed. Early research also indicates that working fewer days has a positive impact on absence rates.
3. Provides a competitive edge
Employees value work-life balance and flexible scheduling more so now than ever. With the Great Resignation plaguing employers, offering a 4 day work week is one of the best ways to attract and retain top talent in 2022 and beyond.
Between September 2021 and June 2022, Google saw a 75% increase in online searches for jobs offering a 4 day working policy. This is the highest in the past five years, with an average of 7.6k searches in the UK each month.
The option of hybrid working is no longer incentivising. Where possible, companies need to provide flexible working to maintain their competitive edge and keep employees happy.
A good example is Atom Bank’s recent move to a shorter week. Upon announcing its decision to provide a 4 day work week to all employees, the app-based UK bank saw a considerable upsurge in searches for jobs at the company. They also experienced a 500% increase in applications for available roles.
4. Saves money
When workers spend fewer days in the office, businesses can save a considerable amount of money by using fewer resources. For example:
- electricity and gas
- stationery supplies
- cleaning services
- general wear and tear of equipment
Implementing a 4 day work week could also reduce employee absence rates. With absenteeism costing UK businesses an annual average of £568 per worker, reducing the number of days employees have to work each week could provide significant savings.
5. Lower carbon emissions
A study by Platform London, a UK-based environmental and social justice collective, found that switching to a 4 day work week by 2025 could shrink UK emissions by 127 million tonnes a year.
This figure represents a reduction of more than 20%, which is greater than Switzerland’s entire carbon footprint, and the equivalent of taking all of the UK’s private cars off the road.
Direct and indirect factors that contribute to these results include:
- Fewer carbon-intensive commutes
- A reduction in workplace energy consumption from office lighting and equipment, heating or air-conditioning, and elevator operating
- Lower household consumption – there is strong evidence that households with longer working hours have considerably larger carbon footprints
- A society-wide shift toward low-carbon activities outside of work
- Less demand for health services and pharmaceuticals due to improved health and wellbeing
During its 4 day work week pilot, Microsoft Japan reported that it became more energy efficient in a number of areas. This included a 23% reduction in electricity costs and a 60% decrease in the number of pages printed.
6. Promotes gender equality
A new report from the Women’s Budget Group think tank reveals that a 4 day work week could facilitate fairer division of unpaid domestic and care responsibilities between men and women, helping to close the gender pay gap for good.
Research from the Government Equalities Office shows that 2.1 million people in the UK are currently not working due to unpaid care responsibilities – and 89% of these are women.
There are many factors at play, but one of the main reasons women are paid less than men is because they typically work fewer hours after their children are born, prioritising childcare responsibilities over returning to full-time work or pursuing career advancement.
Additionally, there are stronger links between overwork and poor mental health for women, with reported levels of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety being around a third higher for women compared to men.
Disadvantages of a 4 day work week
Whilst the 4 day work week is shown to provide a range of benefits to employees and employers, it’s not going to be right for everyone.
1. It can be complex and time-consuming to implement
Implementing a 4 day work week requires careful planning. Whilst not the case for every business, it can take a considerable amount of time and effort to roll out.
Staff rotas have to be changed, employee contracts need to be adjusted, annual leave entitlement has to be recalculated, and workers need to be consulted and briefed about the changes.
The way a business operates will also change. For example, hours of operation, terms and conditions, customer contracts, and delivery schedules.
2. It doesn’t work for all industries
Operating 4 days a week simply isn’t feasible or practicable for some sectors and businesses.
Hospitals, emergency services, public transport, and supermarkets need to operate seven days a week – and ensure enough workers are available to maintain adequate staffing levels.
It can also be challenging to implement in other industries, such as hospitality venues and retail, without increasing staffing costs or losing custom.
3. Some workers want to work five days
Some employees prefer the structure of a five-day week. Others want or need the option of working overtime to earn more money.
That’s not to say that you can’t offer it to other employees, but it’s important to consider everyone’s happiness and wellbeing – and think about making it optional.
4. It can increase deadline pressure
With fewer days to complete tasks and projects, some workers may struggle to meet deadlines. This could increase pressure and employee stress levels, cause mistakes to be made, and have a negative impact on the quality of the work.
So there you have it…
The 4 day work week has proved to be successful for many businesses across the world. It offers a wealth of social, economic, and environmental benefits.
Whilst not a new concept by any means, we’re seeing greater awareness of this reduced-hours model as demand for flexible working reaches an all-time high.
As an increasing number of employees turn their focus to a healthier work-life balance, it’s worth considering whether a 4 day work week could benefit your business.
If it’s not possible, offering hybrid working or a flexible policy of some other kind could be a viable alternative, with the aim of placing greater focus on employee wellbeing and equality in the workplace.
If you have any questions about this blog post, please leave a comment below.