Feature

Work less, do more


The pros and cons of a four day week

Words by Kieran Howells | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Kieran Howells


Design by Matt Bonnar

We spend the majority of our waking hours at work. Whether it’s behind a desk, on a factory floor, or meeting clients, what we do for a living defines our day-to-day. But what if the structure of the working week wasn’t getting the best out of workers and helping businesses succeed? What if cutting the length of the working week could help? Would this drastically improve the workforce’s work-life balance - or would it simply give us less time to ensure that our jobs are carried out to the highest standards?

We all know presenteeism is rife. From those who stay late at night to catch, to those who don’t work as efficiently as they could because they’ve been conditioned to staying until 8PM. Many workers have been conditioned to believe that the more time you spend at your desk the more dedicated you are to your job. However, evidence suggests that this isn’t the case.

Whereas reducing the working week may seem like a counter productive move for most companies, a study by the University of Auckland found that over three-quarters of employees felt better able to successfully manage their work-life balance when working a four-day week (an increase of 24% compared with the five-day week).

A New-Zealand-based company Perpetual Guardian trialled the four-day working week between March and April this year. Despite only working four business days, their 240 staff were paid for five days of work. Academics studying the trial before, during and after its implementation discovered that it was an “unmitigated success” - resulting in 78% of employees feeling that they were able to successfully maintain a healthy work-life balance. Perpetual Guardian’s Head of HR Christine Brotherton tells HR Grapevine that the move had everything to do with being bold when making decisions to benefit employees.

“I think it takes the ability to sit back and question and to challenge to come up with innovative ideas,” she comments. “What holds businesses back? Sometimes we can get caught up in the detail that may lead us to think ‘no, that’s not going to work here because of XYZ’. If we don’t challenge what we’re doing today and the constructs that are tying us to it, then we won’t be relevant in the future. This means opening our eyes to the obstacles and having a clear path to find a way around them.”

Closer to home, UK-based PR company Radioactive Public Relations set aside half a year to test out the viability of the four-day working week, and having just exceeded that period, CEO Rich Leigh comments that the company has no intention of going back to the traditional working week.

“It’s been just shy of six months since we started our four-day work week, without cutting staff pay. We trialled it first for six weeks, then announced it would be permanent last year. I got a lot of variations of the question, ‘but you’re a business owner… isn’t this a terrible business decision?

“Six months in and, comparing the period since June to the exact same period of time prior to the trial, guess what? I’m very happy with where we are.”

Whilst employee wellness is important, a four-day week also has a marked effect on productivity, and therefore, employee output. Marianna Virtanen, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, found that there was an obvious correlation between being overworked and dealing with impaired sleep and depressive symptoms.

She explained that when employees are overworked, they are more likely to sleep less, have a worse diet and skip exercise which could spiral into several problematic health issues which would in turn prevent them from carrying out their duties, whereas workers on four-day working week schedules in one study took as much as half the amount of sick days, whilst upping their productivity by 64%.

However, there could be pitfalls: whilst an improved work-life balance may well be achieved, the drastic decrease in the amount of time in which workers would have to carry out their tasks may well add a considerable amount of stress on professionals in certain industries.

Whilst many trial periods reported positive results, Wellcome Trust recently considered implementing a four-day week, only to discover that it simply didn’t suit its business model. "Like many organisations, Wellcome is continually looking at how we can increase the impact we make towards improving staff wellbeing,” Ed Whiting, Wellcome’s Director of Policy and Chief of Staff tells HR Grapevine.

“Moving to a four-day week was one of a number of very early ideas that we looked at that might have been beneficial to welfare and productivity for everyone at the company," he concludes.

There is also the potential for a four-day working week to simply reduce the output of a business. Whereas all quantitative evidence suggests that the potential for an increase in productivity is high, all business operate differently, and there is no assurance that implementing the scheme, which will inevitably change how a business operates, will have any positive effects at all.

Ultimately, it seems that the four-day working week is a concept more businesses will be confronted with in the future. Whilst the concept may seem like a drastic shift, businesses must trust in statistics and take risks. If Henry Ford hadn’t instigated a similar shake-up in 1926 – cutting the working week from six ten-hour days to a 40-hour week – we could all be feeling a lot more burnt-out now.


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