Two Cents: How close are we to a four-day working week?

Working four days a week has been trialled and tested in many countries, governments and companies with mixed results.
By: | October 17, 2019

The concept of the four-day working week has been around for a little while now, and has mutated into different versions. Some see it as a 10-hour working day for four days (so in effect you are just squeezing five days into four). Others view it as a legitimate day off with no need to work longer on the other four days. Some employers give staff the Monday off, some give the Friday. But these examples are by no means widespread. They are just a handful of smaller companies and often government departments that have trialled four-day working weeks. Many have been disbanded.

The latest entrant into the four-day working week debate is Britain’s Labour party. While not currently in power, that could change later this year if an early UK election is called. The Labour government says it would cut the working week to just 32 hours within 10 years. This will be a gradual phasing in, although it may not automatically lead to a 4-day working week. Instead it may mean a shorter working day (around 6 hours) spread over five days. Most employees would probably opt to just work for four full days and take one day off a week, if their employer allows this.

The bigger issue here is that there will be no reduction in pay, even though they are working fewer hours. Some employers may feel it appropriate to reduce pay in line with a shorter working week. But Labour are keen to emphasis salaries should stay the same. “We should work to live, not live to work. As society got richer, we could spend fewer hours at work,” John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, told Labour’s annual conference in Brighton recently.

“But in recent decades progress has stalled, and since the 1980s the link between increasing productivity and expanding free time has been broken. It’s time to put that right,” he added. And these weren’t just verbal bribes to persuade people to vote for his party. The Labour party followed through by revealing plans to set up a Working Time Commission with the power to recommend to government its findings. Its general thinking behind the announcement is that it’s time for working people to share in the benefits of new technology.

The biggest sticking point is making sure productivity can be maintained, or even increased, when employees work just 32 hours a week. Interestingly, the average working week in the UK is already 32 hours, although this is just an average. Some people work much more than this, although the legal maximum is 48 hours a week. So in a way, there may not be much of a challenge to maintain current productivity levels as it may not lead to a huge reduction in working hours.

UK’s neighbours France reduced its working week from 39 hours to 35 hours in 2000. Almost 2o years on and France is still the 7th biggest economy in the world, and the third biggest in the EU behind Germany and the UK. It serves as a good example to other economies that reducing working hours may not have a detrimental effect on productivity.

So why is that? There’s compelling evidence which shows how longer work hours are associated with various forms of sickness – both physical and mental. The argument is that a reduction of work hours could help to raise the health and well-being of workers, which in turn could lead to productivity gains. So less work could pay for itself by giving rise to higher productivity. Rested bodies and minds make for more productive hours.

Back in the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour work week by 2030 (he said within 100 years at the time of writing). While this seems highly unlikely to happen within the next 11 years, it could be a more long-term goal for the next 50 years, given the huge advances in technology being made. The big question is what would you do with all that free time?