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Will a five-day week soon be a thing of the past?

From mental health benefits to reduced carbon footprints, the big work experiment will change everything forever Sophie Church reports

ES composite
23 Jun 2022

Working four days of the week sounds the stuff of dreams but may soon be the stuff of reality.

This month, more than 3,300 employees at 70 UK companies began a six-month experiment trialling the four-day week. All workers will take home the same salary as if they’d worked the full five days. Known as the 100:80:100 model, employees will receive 100 per cent pay for working 80 per cent of the time, in exchange for 100 per cent productivity.

The initiative is the brainchild of 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit who are currently running similar trials in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland. 4 Day Week Global is delivering the UK pilot in partnership with Autonomy, a UK based thinktank, and researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.

“The UK is at the crest of a wave of global momentum behind the four-day week”, says Joe O’Connor, 4 Day Week Global’s rocket-fuelled CEO. “The impact of the ‘great resignation’ is now proving that workers from a range of industries can produce better outcomes while working shorter and smarter.”

From a Norfolk chippy to a North-London brewery to a Dundee based animation studio – the companies taking part in the UK trial are about as diverse as they come. However, all businesses are hoping to experience revolutionary benefits from taking part in the trial.

The question is, is working one day less really as good for us as evangelists claim - and what about the impact on our cities?

Our mental health

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We Brits are known for our nose to the grindstone attitudes. Arguably, our proclivity for hard work has made the UK the economic powerhouse it is today.

But all work and no play comes at a cost. In the UK, the total number of days lost in 2018 through absenteeism attributed to work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 15.4 million, an increase of nearly three million from the year before.

Now, it’s suggested that the four-day working week could alleviate some of that mental strain. When Microsoft introduced a four-day week for their Japanese workers in 2019, staff stress levels decreased by 7 per cent. A similar trial conducted by New Zealand firm Perpetual Guardian resulted in staff experiencing greater overall life satisfaction.

James is an employee at Resilience Brokers, an East London based climate finance firm that has been operating on a four-day week model since October 2021. “With the extra time in my week, I am able to connect more with nature, which research shows improves personal wellbeing and imagination within the workplace”, he says.

Happy employee, happy business – just by working one day less a week.

Our relationships

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One argument in favour of a four day is week is that it will give workers more time and energy to devote to loved ones. Testimonials from a four-day working week trial run in Iceland from 2015-2019 celebrate revitalised relationships: from grandparents spending more time with grandchildren, to parents no longer needing nursery care, to couples sharing errands between them.

“I’m more likely to take the initiative and do whatever is needed, hoovering or whatever… I’m more likely to simply do these things”, said one Icelandic husband: the words every partner longs to hear.

But it seems that we could also become better colleagues in the process. Sienna O’Rourke is Marketing Manager at North London’s Pressure Drop Brewery, which is currently participating in the four-day working week trial.

“We are only one week into the trial, and we’re already starting to see the positive effects on staff morale”, she says. “We’ve had to become better at planning and communicating across departments to make all of this work, so I do think it will strengthen our working relationships.”

The economy

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Moving to a four-day working week naturally conjures up concerns about maintaining productivity, especially in Conservative circles. Jacob Rees-Mogg is a vocal critic of post-coronavirus working habits, famously leaving passive aggressive notes on colleagues’ desks who had been working from home when he came to inspect the troops.

“I do worry that the desire to take off Monday and Friday is an indication that people think the working week is shorter than the reality is”, said Rees-Mogg in characteristically matron-like fashion.

But Stephen Passmore, CEO of Resilience Brokers, suggests that giving employees a longer weekend leaves them, “more present, focussed and creative in the times they’re in the office.”

Trials of a four-day working week run in Iceland from 2015-2019 corroborate Passmore’s findings: where productivity stayed the same, and even improved, across the majority of trial workplaces. Microsoft also reported a 40% boost in productivity for their Japanese employees.

Unsurprisingly, Labour has historically opposed the Tories in their support of the four-day working week; the change was a key policy in Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto. Research undertaken by the 4 Day Week campaign found that half of ‘Red Wall’ voters would be more likely to vote Labour in a future general election if the party supported the scheme.

But the survey also found that 40% of Labour voters would be more likely to vote Tory if they backed the proposal. Whether Labour includes a four-day working week in their next manifesto is up for debate, but it would seem remiss for any party to neglect a policy that can influence political loyalty, turning reds to blues or, crucially for Labour, blues to reds.

The planet

Climate change and agriculture halve insect populations in some areas – study (Peter Byrne/PA)

/ PA Archive

The environmental benefits of the four-day working week are a surprisingly significant bonus of the scheme. In the same Microsoft trial in Japan, electricity use was down 23 per cent in the office and employees printed 59 per cent fewer pages of paper. A 2021 report commissioned by 4 Day Week Global showed that shifting to a four-day working week could reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year by 2025. That’s the equivalent of removing 27 million cars off the road.

While some environmentalists are concerned that working four days a week will prompt more to jet off on carbon guzzling weekend getaways, others see interlinking benefits. Back in April, Anna Diski launched a petition calling on the government to adopt a four-day working week. Over four days – the magic number it seems – nearly 30,000 people signed the petition.

“The science is clear that we need to be doing everything possible to cut emissions,” says Anna, “if we can do that by moving to a four-day week, and we get better wellbeing and productivity in the process, surely it’s a total no-brainer?”

For Joe Ryle, 4 Day Working Week’s Campaign Director, the myriad benefits of working fewer days are, indeed, “too great to ignore”, and the team are already planning their next move, for when, not if, the trial’s successes are realised.

“We’ll present the results to MPs in Parliament,” explains Ryle, “and then campaign for all political parties to legislate for a maximum amount of 32 working hours per week. It’s not going to happen overnight, but this really is the future of work as we know it.”

London living

The fines are part of TfL’s action plan to lower road injuries

/ Transport for London

The hustle and bustle of commuters in London’s core business areas on a weekday is an unmistakable part of our Capital’s fresco. In contrast, the City at the weekend is a ghost town. Cafés shut, tube stations empty, streets barely dotted with tourists passing through.

With so many now working from home, local businesses are already suffering the economic downturn from less frequent footfall. Moving to a four-day working week would strip back another opportunity to provide service and make money.

On Monday, Diane Wehrle, chief executive of retail analytics firm Springboard, warned that if working from home continued at current levels, footfall may remain permanently 10 per cent lower than it was before.

However, Stephen Passmore focusses on the positives: “When people spend more time working in a hybrid pattern, they are working more in the suburbs, so we are seeing more thriving high streets in the outskirts of London, in smaller communities.” Money is still being spent, it’s just being distributed closer to home.

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