Time for change: Can a four-day week really work?

Woman of Britain return to work in factories due to the lack of manpower after the war. Women workers in the packing department of Twiggs (Northern) Ltd a new pram factory at Pallion Trading state, Sunderland.
Woman of Britain return to work in factories due to the lack of manpower after the war. Women workers in the packing department of Twiggs (Northern) Ltd a new pram factory at Pallion Trading state, Sunderland.

Trade unions are calling for a shorter working week, but what is the reality of working only four days? HELEN MCGURK explores whether it is merely a laudable pipedream or something that could actually become the norm

Usually on a Monday at 10.30am I would be on a conference call with my colleagues discussing our story plans for the week ahead. But not this Monday.

This Monday, after getting two reluctant scholars off to primary school, I repaired back to my bed and slept for a blissful hour.

You see, in the interests of, ahem, research, I had asked my boss, the editor of this newspaper, if I could work four days, instead of my usual five, for two weeks. Unbelievably, he agreed.

My audacious request was based on a recent TUC proposal, with the trades union body arguing that with advances in technology – especially artificial intelligence – a four-day working week, equating to 28 hours, is within our grasp this century.

It believes that if the benefits of new technologies are to be evenly spread around, workers can have a shorter working week (without loss of pay) and productivity can be increased.

Those in favour of a four-day week argue it could slash unemployment and underemployment (workers who want more hours), tackle health conditions, increase productivity, help the environment (countries with shorter working weeks are more likely to have a smaller carbon footprint), improve family lives and make people happier.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said: “In the 19th century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the 20th century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays.

“So, for the 21st century, let’s lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone. It’s time to share the wealth from new technology, not allow those at the top to grab it for themselves.”

Earlier this year 240 staff at Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company which manages trusts, wills and estate planning, trialled a four-day working week, working four, eight-hour days but getting paid for five.

Academics studied the trial before, during and after its implementation, collecting qualitative and quantitative data.

The company concluded it was an unmitigated success, with 78 per cent of employees feeling they were able to successfully manage their work-life balance, an increase of 24 percentage points.

Jarrod Haar, professor of human resource management at Auckland University of Technology, found job and life satisfaction increased on all levels across the home and work front, with employees performing better in their jobs and enjoying them more than before the experiment.

Work-life balance, which reflected how well respondents felt they could successfully manage their work and non-work roles, increased by 24 percentage points.

In November last year just over half (54 per cent) of staff felt they could effectively balance their work and home commitments, while after the trial this number jumped to 78 per cent.

Staff stress levels decreased by seven percentage points across the board as a result of the trial, while stimulation, commitment and a sense of empowerment at work all improved significantly, with overall life satisfaction increasing by five percentage points.

Proponents argue that under a four-day week, life-sapping long working hours could become a distant memory, as would the living-for-the-weekend culture.

We would have an extra day to learn a new skill, perhaps, go the gym, look after a relative, sit in coffee shops, spend quality time with our families or, simply, be.

The argument made is that reduced hours for the same pay would increase successful work-life balance management, cut stress levels and boost commitment.

There is no denying, many of us work too much. It’s not just the 37.5 hours a week clocked up on average by full-time workers; it’s the unpaid overtime too.

That overwork causes significant damage, including lost work days due to stress, depression or anxiety. Stress can exacerbate the risk of all manner of health problems, from high blood pressure to strokes.

So, how did I find my two four-day weeks? Great! - especially on Sunday evening when I wasn’t fretting about getting stuff done for the week ahead - I had the next day to do some often neglected household chores.

But did I do those chores on Monday? Don’t be silly. I went to the hairdressers for a cut and colour. An ‘indulgence’ like this would normally take an inordinate amount of forward planning; it’s nearly impossible to do anything at the weekends as they usually end up a frenetic circus of ferrying the kids to and from activities or parties, walking the dog, doing the laundry, hoovering....you get the picture. It was bliss just to have some time to myself, talking about holiday plans with the nice lady attending to my split ends.

Then I went for an amble round the clothes shops.....again, something I rarely have the opportunity to do due to weekend time restraints.

Back home though, I decided to check my work emails. Part of me felt a sense of guilt at not being in work- I even responded to one or two. But the rest of my day was my own. I pottered about a bit, went for a walk, but at the back of my mind was the worry that I would have more work to cram into the rest of the week.

However, on Tuesday when I clocked back on, I felt more refreshed, creative and eager to get the job done. In those four days when I was in work I was undoubtedly more productive and worked more expeditiously. The work got done and the world didn’t fall apart.

On the second of my four-day weeks, I did do the chores on Monday, but, I wondered, would my other half be so keen to defrost the fridge or scour the shower if he worked just four days a week...hhmmmm, I’m not so sure. Women still do 60% more unpaid household work on average than men. I doubt an extra day off work would necessarily lead to men rushing to don a pinny and a pair of Marigolds.

The other issue with working four days a week could be the difficulty of switching off, or ignoring the ‘temptation’ to work. I checked my work emails intermittently throughout the day and even ended up doing a bit of work to help a colleague.

But, overall, I believe the introduction of a four-day week is long overdue. I really enjoyed my short, punchy two weeks.

Sure, work can be a fulfilling activity for some. It strikes me, though, that few would disagree with the notion that we should spend more time with our families, nurturing our relationships with our children, exercising, reading books, or just relaxing.

Making Thursday the new Friday, or Tuesday the new Monday, I believe would make us healthier and happier - it would remove from us the misconception that our job is the most important aspect of our lives. After my experiment, I believe the five-day week is outmoded and counterproductive.

Four days with the same pay? When can I start?!