What are the benefits and drawbacks of a 4-day week?
The 5-day work week has been one of the defining elements of full-time employment for a long time now. But recent years have seen the idea of a 4-day work week gaining traction. The Pandemic and Great Resignation have changed our relationship with work. And a litany of studies seem to suggest it's a good idea. But, even now, 4-day weeks have their detractors. So, let's look at the benefits and drawbacks to see who's right.
Updated 30th November 2023
Proponents of a 4-day work week have been dealt something of a blow by the UK Government. In October, the government issued guidance to local councils calling for an end to all 4-day week initiatives.
"The Government is being crystal clear that it does not support the adoption of the four-day working week within the local Government sector. Local authorities that are considering adopting it should not do so. Those who have adopted it already should end those practices immediately."
Of course, there's still nothing to stop private businesses from implementing 4-day weeks. So, is the government's response an overreaction, or are they right to be apprehensive?
Why it's worth talking about
Stress, overwork and burnout have become all too common in recent years. In fact, Gallup's most recent State of the Global Workplace report found job stress remains at an all-time high. Workplace cultures have, for too long, rewarded presenteeism (staying late in the office to appear more hardworking). Too many companies choose to keep the status quo rather than explore more flexible options.
The idea is that freeing up an extra weekday improves employee wellbeing and work/life balance. That means employees are more energized and engaged at work. Which, in theory, helps to make up for the reduction in working hours in terms of productivity.
A 4-day work week could also benefit the economy by giving people more time to visit places and spend money. This was the line of thinking suggested by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in response to the fallout of COVID-19. She suggested businesses adopt a 4-day work week as one of the pathways out of the economic crisis.
The companies experimenting with a 4-day work week
The 4-day week craze as we know it arguably started with Iceland's trial using over 1% of its working population from 2015 to 2019. Those who took part in Iceland's 4-day work week trial had working hours cut back to 35-36 hours with no change in pay.
The study was an "overwhelming success" in terms of both productivity and wellbeing. As a result, according to the Iceland Trade Union Federations, approximately 86% of Iceland's working population now either have flexibility or outright reduced hours in their contracts.
This was such a head-turner that other countries, like Spain, Germany and Scotland, scrambled to put together trials of their own. And, in September, Scotland followed up by announcing a trial with certain public sector employees.
The world's largest 4-day work week pilot scheme
The UK's 4-day week pilot scheme may be largest performed to date. But even this used only a fraction of the UK's working population. 61 companies took part, employing a total of 2,900 employees. Much like Iceland's trial years prior, the pilot scheme seems to have been a huge success. Of the 61 companies which took part, 56 extended their trial period. And 18 have made 4-day weeks permanent as a result.
According to 4-Day Week Campaign director Joe Ryle, “across a wide variety of sectors, wellbeing has improved dramatically for staff; and business productivity has either been maintained or improved in nearly every case. We’re really pleased with the results and hopefully it does show that the time to roll out a four-day week more widely has surely come.”
Staff surveys taken before and after the study seem to support this. 39% of staff reported lower stress. 40% reported better sleep, and 54% said it was easier to balance work and home commitments. So, a 4-day week could be a useful tool for mitigating job stress and burnout.
However, the study also highlights the challenges of flexible scheduling for smaller businesses. Start-ups like Rivelin Robotics (with only eight staff) found that some commitments couldn't wait with nobody to fill in. But, on the whole, they still valued the flexibility.
The businesses sticking with 4-day weeks
Many businesses are experimenting with 4-day work weeks on a trial basis. But some have gone further with permanent implementation.
After testing the waters back in 2022, London-based environmental consultancy firm Tyler Grange announced a permanent shift to the 4-day work week in June 2023. According to co-founder Simon Ursell:
"I think we’ve all seen huge changes in the way people work over the last number of years. And we’re pretty obsessed about how we can be better. We found a four-day week is more productive, we do about 106% of the work in four days that we used to do in five. And that’s because we are better at it, not because we are compressing hours.”
The app-based banking service Atom Bank ran a successful 4-day work week trial back in 2021. As a result, they decided to stick with it. 10 months later, they found the following:
- 92% of employees looked forward to work.
- Atom Bank received a 49% increase in job applications.
- Their Trustpilot score rose from 4.54 to 4.82 out of 5.
- Customer goodwill rose from 83.1% to 85.8%.
If you read much of our content, the name Buffer probably sounds familiar. That's because they're the company behind the annual State of Remote Work reports we cite in a lot of our flexible working content.
Well, aside from advocating for remote work, Buffer is also leading the charge on the 4-day work week. Their first trial run was back in May, 2020. By the end of that year, they'd decided to implement the change "for the foreseeable future."
Two years on, this is how they were doing:
- 91% of people were happier and more productive.
- 73% worked 4-day weeks or 5 shorter days.
- 27% chose to work five-day weeks.
- 84% agree they manage to get all their work done in 4 days.
4-day weeks versus compressed hours
Before we go any further, we need to clarify the difference between compressed hours and proper 4-day work weeks. While you might think they're completely synonymous, there's a big difference.
Compressed hours mean taking an employee's work hours and spacing them over a shorter period of time. For example, compressing five eight-hour days into four 10-hour days. The problem with compressed hours is that they work people past the point where they're already tired.
A real 4-day work week means cutting a day's worth of hours while leaving salary unchanged. Now, let's have a look at the arguments for and against a four-day work week.
Arguments for the 4-day work week
So, on the whole, research seems to suggest that 4-day work weeks can be very beneficial. But that doesn't mean there aren't any hurdles. Let's lay out the advantages and disadvantages, so you can decide if it's feasible for your business.
4-day weeks encourage a leaner schedule
Having less time to work means you focus more on doing the important stuff. It means less tolerance of wasting time in endless meetings. You're not as tempted to fritter away your day reading the news or scrolling social feeds. Knowing your weekend is closer causes you to focus and prioritise what matters most.
There are also plenty of workplace tools to support a leaner schedule. Like using our employee check-in system to exchange feedback with staff. Since it only takes minutes to use, there's no scheduling to worry about.
After trying it for a few weeks, you'll soon realise a lot of what you do doesn't contribute meaningfully to your business goals. And the 5-day 9-5 week is an outdated relic of a bygone era.
Shorter work weeks are better for wellbeing
On a personal level, the effects of burnout on health can't be ignored. There's a familiar cycle you can get into. You can't really do anything on Saturday because you're exhausted from the week. Then Sunday is spent cramming in all the errands you couldn't do in the week.
With an extra day each weekend, you'll discover the beauty of a true leisure day. One where you're fully rested, with plenty of energy to get out there and enjoy yourself. In a time where we need to do everything we can for workplace wellbeing, 4-day work weeks are an easy win.
With more leisure time, people will have more opportunity to contribute to their local economies. And, with the cost of living increasing, that's something local restaurants and cultural destinations will really need in the coming years. Financial wellbeing is vital too, after all.
Parents also get to spend more time with their children. Remember how Buffer has implemented a 4-day work week?
Well, that initial May trial came about because a 4-day week was the number one thing working parents at Buffer wanted in 2020.
There are also some great arguments from a societal perspective. Fewer working hours means fewer journeys taken by car and public transport. And that means fewer emissions and pollution going into our air. Optimising road networks to reduce congestion can lead to millions of pounds of productivity growth, too.
Arguments against the 4-day work week
There are a few concerns for the shortened work week. Although it's a pretty great idea, there are some organisations that'll have to think harder about how to make it work. And these staffed mainly by frontline workers.
Handling responsibilities over a 4-day work week may be exhausting
It's one thing to say you're not doing compressed hours. But, if your people are regularly going into overtime to keep on top of their work, you might as well be. If your people aren't ready for it, a shorter work week could increase stress, rather than relieving it.
Plus, it leaves less time for things that aren't immediately essential in the moment. Important things that are easy to ignore. Like feedback between managers and employees, or career development like upskilling. Over time, the absence of these things can have a massive effect on work quality.
You’re paying a 5 day rate for 4-day's work
So, if you stick to the true meaning of a 4-day work week, you’ll be paying employees the same salaries for less hours. And this can feel like a kick in the teeth when you’re trying to run the most cost-effective business possible.
In theory, this shouldn't be an issue. The point of 4-day weeks is to keep employees from being exhausted. So, they're meant to do more in four days than they would in five. But that's quite a gamble to take if you aren't sure of the results.
Think about a construction site. If you took away 20% of working hours (on full pay), workers would be happier and more rested. But would they get more done in the compressed time? The way projects are managed on a building site, with so many complex moving parts, would certainly make it difficult.
Staff increases may be necessary
Converting to a 4-day work week is going to be most challenging for smaller businesses. This is because they don't necessarily have the staffing to cover operational hours and still be open five days a week. Especially if your aim is to reduce the amount of time people spend at work.
Cutting back hours can create gaps in your shift schedule. So, in a situation where you’re reducing everyone’s hours, you might need to take on new hires. The combined cost of increased hiring and giving up 20% of an employee's working hours can prove too cost-prohibitive for some businesses.
It isn't just small businesses that suffer, either. Larger organisations can struggle to bring people across to 4-day weeks en-mass. The main challenge here is scheduling things effectively while keeping it fair.
And experiments in the past have shown it doesn't always work. Take the Wellcome Trust for example. This research foundation couldn't find a way to fairly transition its 800+ office staff to four-day weeks, calling it "too operationally complex to implement."
4-day weeks are a step forward for flexibility
If one thing has become clear, it's that rigid 9-5 systems as a universal standard don't work. Job flexibility stands to make all kinds of careers accessible to a wider range of people. Whether it's remote work opening careers up to applicants with disabilities, or core hours helping single parents balance their work and home lives. That much is true, even if you aren't a proponent of the 4-day work week.
The fact that 4-day weeks are being widely considered shows how far businesses have come. The idea of waving goodbye to five-day work weeks might not seem like reality. But the same was true of mass remote work before 2020. So, who knows where we'll be in a few years.
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