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The four-day work week – too little or just right?

For most people with a full-time job, and for many of us students looking into post-graduate employment, five days per week of the nine-to-five grind of working life appears to be the norm. But what if that could all change? Could a four-day week boost our productivity, or is the idea of a three-day weekend clouding our judgement?

The idea of a four-day week is not a new one. Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would help us work just 15 hours a week, back in 1930. Despite the development of technology, Brits still work for an average of 32 hours a week, though a significant decrease from the 62 hours in 1868.  Statistics reveal that around 3.3 million of the British workforce work for more than 48 hours a week, with 1.4 million working for all seven days of the week.

The UK’s Trade Union Council (TUC) report showed that 45% of its members wanted a four-day week, with 81% wanting to work for at least one day less than they do currently. It’s hard to deny that the idea of a shorter working week is popular with employees – but how does it fare in terms of business?

It appears that a four-day week has its advantages. Firstly, cutting down to four working days a week could benefit the environment, as employees will not only have more time for sustainable lifestyles, but there will be a reduction in emission from cars and a smaller burden on public transport networks. Another huge benefit of a four-day week is an increase in employee welfare. An additional day off would mean that people will have more time for exercise, reading, volunteering – more free time could mean an improvement in our mental and physical health.

An additional day off would mean that people will have more time for exercise, reading, volunteering

A trustee company in New Zealand, Perpetual Guardian, decided to test out the four-day week in March and April of 2018. Their trial was monitored by Auckland University of Technology and University of Auckland, and the results revealed that work remained up to standard, while teamwork and work engagement increased, and stress levels among employees decreased. But, there were some concerns. It appeared that some employees had to break the trial to keep up with the heavy workload during busy periods. The trial run also showed no significant improvement in work quality either. Many of the employees also raised the issue of the social aspect of their job – having one less day of coming into the office, meant one more day they wouldn’t spend time with other people. Measuring productivity is also difficult: productivity is often dependent on a number of factors including the task itself, the demand for the service, and the economic status of the work.

So, moving to a four-day week is doable, but unless employee welfare is your main goal, it doesn’t seem that worth it. Treehouse, a coding education startup, switched their working week to four days in 2015, and a year later returned to the more traditional five day schedule. Their CEO, Ryan Carson, said: “It created this lack of work ethic in me, and was fundamentally detrimental to our business and our mission.”

While we would all like to have an extra day off each week, a lot of us forget that that would mean being paid a fifth less

While we would all like to have an extra day off each week, a lot of us forget that that would mean being paid a fifth less. TUC’s survey suggests that 75% of workers said higher pay would be the most beneficial change, rather than a reduction in working hours. The reality is that most companies would not stick to a 28-hour week, and expect their employees to still work for 40 hours, but in four days. We’re used to having five days to deliver our work, along with the breathing space that affords, and squeezing five days-worth of work into four may, in fact, lead to lower morale and increased stress.

The TUC, Labour Party, and Green Party are all openly discussing a four-day week, but it is unlikely to be a top-down development led by legislation. Paul Swinney, Head of Policy and Research at the Centre for Cities, said that it may take decades before a four-day week is the default for most of us. Regardless of timeline, on the face of it, it doesn’t look like reducing our workweek to four days is that beneficial. But, this doesn’t mean that we should work for 90 hours a week, like Elon Musk who claims that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” We need to find a balance that makes the most of our productivity while also giving us time to unwind, relax and look after our health instead of just business.

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