Work-life balance: the era of the four-day week?

6th of August 2021
Work-life balance: the era of the four-day week?

Are we seeing the work-life scales finally balancing up … or even tipping in favour of employees? Hartley Milner reports on how the Covid emergency is helping bring about probably the most radical transformation of our working lives in generations.

During the lockdowns, millions of people worldwide had their first taste of routinely working from home. Zoom fatigue aside, most have decided that overall it has had a positive impact on their lives; so much so they want to continue working remotely after the pandemic.

And the message appears to be getting through to employers. Keen to keep their staff happy, while not being totally blind to the benefits to themselves, employers are coming round to accepting that homeworking will become a permanent fixture of the post-Covid ‘new norm’, at least for part of the time.

Now businesses and governments are looking increasingly favourably on calls for an even more progressive shift in work patterns … to a four-day week. A shorter workweek would be more inclusive because it means everyone reaps the benefits, rather than just those in jobs that allow them to work from home.

Proponents of a four-day working week point to trials that show it promotes better mental and physical health due to employees having more time to recuperate, exercise, socialise and be with family. Sick leave is reduced and productivity increases because workers are happier and more motivated in their jobs, and feel more committed to their employer. Other benefits claimed include significant cuts in CO2 emissions resulting from reduced commutes and large office and factory buildings shut down on one extra day a week.

Unsurprisingly, a move to a three-day weekend gets an enthusiastic ‘bring it on’ from workers in surveys. In Ireland late last year, a study by Behaviour & Attitudes for trade union Fórsa revealed that two out of three employees thought that a four-day week – defined as “same job, same goals, same salary but over four days rather than five” – is “realistic and achievable” in the medium term. A majority of employers also believed it would be achievable.

Just over 77 per cent of workers said they supported their government exploring the potential introduction of four-day working compared to 67 per cent approval from employers. Three-quarters said they believed it would be “desirable” for employees and 59 per cent that it should be “achievable” for employers as well.

Almost half of employers (46 per cent) said they saw trialling a four-day week in their workplace as “feasible”. Factoring out undecided respondents, the survey concluded that more than 80 per cent of those polled felt it was a realistic and achievable ambition, while 93 per cent favoured a trial.

Four-day week

“The strong support for a four-day working week among Irish people is consistent with similar studies internationally,” said Joe O’Connor, Fórsa director of campaigning. “What may once have seemed like a radical concept is now, for many, a reasonable and rational ambition. The Covid-19 pandemic has further disrupted societal and workplace norms, while illustrating the potential for very different models of work.”

A four-day week is a very different proposition to simply cutting employees’ hours, which is why governments are moving towards adopting it as national policy with caution. However, a growing number of employers have already made the switch or are planning to trial the model.

The New Zealand-based financial services company Perpetual Guardian ran a pilot in 2018, moving all of its 240 employees from a five- to four-day workweek … without a cut in pay. Staff said their stress levels dropped by seven percentage points across the board, while work/life balance scores increased from 54 per cent to 78 per cent.

Some employees spent the extra day pursuing hobbies, while others were able to spend more time with their family, studying or even cleaning their houses before the weekend. The company reported a 20 per cent rise in productivity and increased profits.

“For us, this is about our company getting improved productivity from greater workplace efficiencies … there’s no downside for us,” said Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes. “The right attitude is a requirement to make it work – everyone has to be committed and take it seriously for us to create a viable long-term model for our business. We need to get more companies to give it a go. They will be surprised at the improvement in their company, their staff and in their wider community.”

Another company to “give it a go” is global affiliate network Awin. Awin began trialling four-day working in January, and to March 31 saw a 59 per cent drop in sick leave compared with the same period in 2020. To allow for the impact of the March lockdown, a comparison was also made with the first quarter of 2019, but still revealed a fall of 29 per cent in sick leave. Bi-weekly employee surveys revealed a year-on-year increase of 12.8 per cent in staff engagement.

People also felt they accomplished nine per cent more in February this year compared with 2020. Global job applications rose by 12 per cent while the numbers leaving steadily decreased since 2019, with the 2021 figures the lowest yet. Awin regional managing director Ian Charlesworth said the scores suggest “a happy and motivated workforce in general”.

Rest well

Microsoft experimented with a new project called Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, giving its entire 2,300 staff in Japan five Fridays off in a row without a pay cut. The shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by 40 per cent, the company concluded at the end of the trial. As part of the project, the company also subsidised family holidays for employees by up to ¥100,000 or €756.70. Staff took 25 per cent less time off during the trial and electricity use in the office was down 23 per cent. The vast majority of employees – 92 per cent – said they liked the shorter week.

“Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot,” Microsoft Japan president and ceo Takuya Hirano said in a statement to Microsoft Japan’s website. “I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20 per cent less working time.”

Multinational Unilever is trialling a four-day working week for all 81 staff members at its offices across New Zealand throughout 2021, without a drop in pay. The consumer goods company said it would evaluate the outcome and look at how a shorter working week could work for the rest of its 155,000 employees globally.

New Zealand md Nick Bangs said: “If we end up in a situation where the team is working four extended days then we miss the point of this. We don’t want our team to have really long days, but to bring material change in the way they work. It’s very much an experiment. We have made no commitments beyond 12 months and beyond New Zealand. But we think there will be some good learning we can gather in this time.”

On a national level, several of Europe’s largest economies including France, Germany and the Netherlands, have moved closer to a four-day working week, but have baulked at doing much more than tinker a little with the working hours. However, the idea appears now to be gaining momentum in the light of the trend being set by industry and pressure from campaigners for a shorter working week.

The Spanish government has announced it is to launch a pilot project for companies interested in testing out the four-day week after being approached to do so by left-wing party Más País. The trial is likely to be run over three years and could get under way as early as the autumn,

Less can be more

“With the four-day work week (32 hours), we’re launching into the real debate of our times,” said Más País party leader Iñigo Errejón on Twitter. “It’s an idea whose time has come. Spain is one of the countries where workers put in more hours than the European average. But we’re not among the most productive countries. I maintain that working more hours does not mean working better.”

It is thought that anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 workers from 200 companies could take part in the trial, with the government allocating €58.2 million towards its implementation costs. Más País has set as its red line that the pilot must result in a true reduction in working hours with no cut in salary or job losses.

Governments elsewhere will be watching Spain with interest, while also having in mind the outcome of an experiment in Sweden. In 2015, the city of Gothenburg trialled a four-day week in its care homes for the elderly. While productivity and employee work satisfaction rates shot up, the schedule meant more nurses were needed to fill staffing shortages, costing the city €1.3m. After two years, the scheme was deemed too expensive and was scrapped. Even at a local level, it was shown the four-day week can be logistically difficult to implement, and costly.


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