Benefits for employees and employers
For UK-based fans of long weekends, this May is a month to celebrate. Three out of five Mondays will be bank holidays, presenting many workers with a host of four-day weeks. Of course, not everyone will get the days off; others who do might find themselves working longer hours than normal on other days to make up for the time missed.
The 4 day week campaign would like that extra leisure time to be experienced by everyone, all year round. It argues that the conventional 40 hour working week should be cut to 32 hours – importantly, without reducing salaries. While this might sound like it imposes a heavy cost on employers, a recent trial involving 61 companies across the UK suggests that this is achievable without a loss of revenue or productivity – and with the benefit of lower employee turnover.
The companies involved in the trial took a range of approaches to the four-day week. While some closed down completely for a day, others chose to stagger which days different employees took off. One restaurant even chose to average the reduction in working hours across the year so as not to be short-staffed during busy seasons.
The response to the trial was overwhelmingly positive from employees: 96% said they would like to continue with a four-day week, with many reporting improvements in mental health, a better work-life balance and decreased feelings of burnout.
But those of us who normally work five days a week might not see similar benefits during the present glut of bank holidays. Most companies did a lot of work before the trial to ensure that a shorter working week would be both productive and manageable. For example, a ‘significant preparation period’ at a craft brewery was devoted to finding ways to make their brewing process more efficient. And a separate trial that Unilever ran for employees in New Zealand began by helping staff to remove less-valuable activities from their workloads, which also led to wider changes such as reducing the number of meetings held.
The effort appears to have been worth it: 92% of employers in the UK trial plan to continue with shorter working weeks, and Unilever has rolled out its trial to its Australian arm. However, I suspect that the benefits to employers are too small to convince many others to invest in their own trials anytime soon: there’s a big energy barrier to changing working culture (even without the costs of preparation). It took a pandemic for remote and hybrid working to become normalised. If four-day weeks are to become widespread, it’s going to take a lot more work.