Sweeping through the world in its Tsunami-esque manner, the Covid 19 pandemic has left parts of our lives unrecognisable. Pretty much every corner of our existence has been altered by this invisible tyrant.
The way in which we conduct our working life has, it seems, been irretrievably changed. Remote and flexible work schedules were once considered a benefit; something used by organisations to entice candidate interest and compete for talent. Now, after almost 2 years, these things are a given…they are expectations of employment.
Now though, flexible scheduling has been taken one step further as 30 companies across the UK have been asked to trial a 4 day working week.
Unilever and Morrisons are two big names reportedly considering making the move to a four day working week. Additionally, the UK arm of camera company Canon is taking part in the 6 month trial.
So how did we get here? Is there to be a shift in the traditional working patterns, and what could be the possible benefits of a 4 day working week?
The UK adopted the 5 day working week back in the 1930s to reflect what was happening across the Atlantic. The USA adopted the 5 day working week to counter the unemployment caused by the Great Depression.
It was high street giants, Boots that pioneered the 5 day working week here in the UK. Boots implemented the 48 hour window after it opened a factory designed to improve efficiency. It was so efficient in fact; it negated the need for many of the workforce. With not enough work to go around, and not wishing to make staff redundant, Boots introduced a 2 day period of rest.
It was soon discovered that the ‘weekend’ increased productivity and had a positive effect on staff absenteeism. Entirely successful, the weekend was made official Boots policy in 1934.
Ever since the 1960s, there have been rumblings of the weekend being extended to include a third day. In recent years, trials have been carried out across the world testing the theory. Firms from the USA, Sweden, and New Zealand have all tested the premise. Despite some positive feedback, they all abandoned the trials and returned to the traditional 5 day working model.
This week it was reported that 30 firms across the UK have confirmed they are taking part in a 6 month trial that will see staff work a 4 day week without any salary modifications.
Advocates for the changes argue that it will create a better work/life balance, while critics suggest that it will leave employees feeling under pressure to cram 5 days of work into 4.
The benefits of a 4 day working week.
What could be the benefits of a 4 day working week?
Microsoft Japan introduced a 4 day week in August 2019. 2300 employees were given 5 Fridays off in a row. The company reported that productivity increased by 40%, meetings were more efficient and worker absenteeism dropped. The practice was also endorsed by staff. 90% said they preferred the shorter working week.
This, and other 4 day working week experiments carried out around the world show that engaged, rested, and happy employees produce work of a higher quality than their 5 day counterparts.
This is all backed up my neurological evidence. The brain is a sensitive organ that requires rest to function effectively. Supporting this theory, data confirms that working for 8 hours straight with no breaks will produce worse quality work than a smaller number of hours that have been split up with breaks.
To function effectively, the brain needs a break.
The pandemic has significantly affected the mental wellness of many. Health concerns, loneliness, isolation, and financial stress have all been contributory factors in mental health decline.
Any steps that will help to protect the mental health of the workforce and the population at large should be given considerable weight.
Mental health and wellbeing has been at the forefront of the argument for the 4 day working week. It is thought to offer a greater work/life balance, allowing workers to recover from work-related stress and to spend more time with others doing things that make them happy.
Employee wellbeing becomes even more notable when we consider wider economic factors. The UK is only just starting to emerge from the largest recession it has endured in 300 years. Data from the ONS reveals that 17.5 million working days were lost due to mental health in 2018. This figure only underlines the drastic impact mental health problems can have on the economy as well as the workers themselves.
The wider economy.
Some thinkers have also suggested that a 4 day week will help to improve the wider economic outlook. 3 day weekends will allow shoppers more time to visit the high street and will increase hobby-related spending… gardening or DIY, for example.
It is also thought that a 4 day week will encourage entrepreneurial activity. Starting, or scaling a business is costly, and requires a lot of time, energy, and creativity. The 4 day week will allow business leaders to invest their own time more resourcefully and reduce any payroll costs by 20%.
The counterargument to the 4 day working week.
However, there are those who disagree.
More stress, not less.
Critics believe the implementation of a 4 day working week will have the opposite effect. With many suggesting that pay scales should remain the same, the pressure to produce the same volume of work in a shorter period will intensify. Will employees end up working 40 hours over 4 days as they struggle to hit deadlines?
The 4 day week cannot be universal.
Critics of the 4 day working week have also argued that it is not universally achievable. For example, the concept would be harder in customer-facing roles, or 24/7 operations such as the NHS or emergency services, for example.
Overtime payments in these institutions would have significant implications for employers or the taxpayer.
A trial conducted in France confirms both these fears. It found that workers were putting in the same number of hours over less days. Burn out and employee work related stress increased, while companies were having to pay them on top of their salary for their extra time.
If not now, then when?
The Coronavirus pandemic has been the catalyst of change. The Great resignation and remote working are just two examples of how it has irrevocably changed the world of work in the UK.
Of course, the 4 day working week may have happened anyway, but it certainly seems that the pandemic has pushed it to the forefront of the discussion.
The arguments seem to suggest that a 4 day working week will have restorative effects on the mental wellbeing of the UK workforce. It is also expected that it will help the wider UK economy, both through improved employee productivity and increased opportunities for spending.
However, there are some intricacies that need to be addressed. How would this be applied to public services, for example, or how would employers address overtime payments as well as ensuring 4 day workers are managing their workload?
The 4 day working week seems like a giant leap, however once upon a time, as little as 70 years ago, the UK workforce worked 12 hours a day over a 6 day week. Perhaps we need another maverick like John Boot to rewrite the narrative and break down the traditional parameters of work culture as we have come to know them.