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11 July 2024

The four-day work week is the future

The evidence is clear: a four-day work week would boost productivity and happiness. So why aren’t our politicians pushing for it?

By Sarah Manavis

The positive impact of the four-day working week on workers’ mental health, physical health, productivity, unemployment rates, underemployment rates, staff turnover, the environment, the economy and company revenue now verges on the point of objective. In the past decade, countless studies and trials across the world have reached the same conclusion: that a four-day work week benefits both businesses and staff. Formally implementing a shorter work week could solve social and economic problems which are effecting financial growth, worker health and personal happiness. And the potential impact of these improvements on a mass-scale could prove even greater than the already substantial benefits we’ve seen in isolated studies. 

This week, the largest UK public sector trial of a four-day working week – in South Cambridgeshire District Council – was deemed an overwhelming success. Out of 24 areas, 11 saw improvements in performance and 11 saw little or no change, with only two reporting a worse performance over the 15-month period. Benefits included things like staff turnover dropping by 39 per cent – saving the council £371,500 in a year – a 15 per cent boost in planning application decisions being made on time, and housing and benefits claims being processed substantially quicker. Even the negative results, like rent collection for council housing worsening slightly, could be attributed to external factors like the cost-of-living crisis increasing over the period of the trial. Self-reported scores for employee health, motivation and commitment all improved.

These results from South Cambridgeshire are not, at this stage, astonishing. Global governments looking to improve productivity should be eager to introduce this policy. Why then, is the four-day week still treated like a wacky, left-field proposal? Despite the mounting evidence in its favour, it is rarely championed by those outside fringe politicians and special interest groups, trials often heralded as successes only to be quietly forgotten months later. When it does happen, it typically occurs in name but not in practice, such as in Belgium in 2022 where workers were given the option to condense their working hours into four days, but still had to complete five days’ worth of hours (an option only given at the employer’s discretion). Even the experiment in South Cambridgeshire drew ire from the now-ousted local Tory MP, Anthony Browne, who called it an “ideological crusade”. A former Tory minister demanded the borough “end your experiment immediately” saying it’d be a waste of taxpayer money.

It isn’t just that the push to implement a four-day work week is simply being ignored – in some parts of the world, there is an active regression to an even longer working week. Greece has now officially introduced a six-day (48-hour) work week for businesses that operate on a 24-hour basis, where staff who work an extra day – or an extra two hours per shift – are incentivised with 40 per cent overtime pay. (The centre-right Greek government has emphasised that this extra work is technically optional.) It has been imposed under the guise of accelerating productivity in a country where the average salary is still only €900 per month, a move which Greek unions have described as “barbaric”, encouraging poorer working conditions while also holding employers back from hiring more staff. Even people on pensions have been encouraged to take advantage of the scheme.

One in five Greek adults were at risk of poverty last year despite already having the longest average working week of any European Union nation (39.8 hours vs the EU average of 36.1). It’s absurd to suggest the remedy to this problem – as well as the problem ageing populations and shrinking workforces – is extending hours; that an even more gruelling work culture than our burnout-inducing current one will somehow generate mass productivity and increase levels of skilled labour. So what motivates governments and politicians – against all evidence – to continue pretending a four-day work week isn’t at least in part a solution to these deep-seated economic issues?

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At the heart of this resistance is a conservative, irrational belief that working more means working harder, or more productively – a specious claim that might feel “right”, but goes against all the available data that shows the 40-hour work week is ineffectual, and that the vast majority of people can focus and work better in less time. It’s an austerity mindset, in which a culture of presenteeism and ideological insistence on “hard work” pushes back against the idea of rewarding people with more leisure time during an economic crisis. This holds us back from achieving a workplace culture that is happier and freer, with more efficient private and public services. It’s naive to think this culture might change, at least here in the UK, with a new government: Keir Starmer has said that Labour will push for things such as extending NHS working hours to contend with long hospital waitlists. Again, this pseudo-intuitive thinking only entrenches us further in the problems that have caused this crisis of productivity, poor working conditions and mass burnout in the first place.

Politicians and business leaders are ultimately resisting a set of hard facts that are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. On Wednesday, following the success in South Cambridgeshire, a new pilot project was announced where, starting from November, companies can sign up to be part of a trial that will formally submit findings to the government to push for the four-day week to be official adopted. But even without this new initiative, the evidence is already clear: we do not have to be miserable to be productive. Those in power are only holding themselves back by cowing to social norms rather than embracing a more efficient future.

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