What is the four-day week, and why do we need it now?

The four day week would see employees across the UK work one fewer day a week while earning the same amount of money. It could have a range of benefits.

What is the four day week?

The modern British adult is expected to do a heck of a lot in their week. Exercise for the correct number of hours and at the correct degree of intensity to stave off the physical conditions that are the consequence of our sedentary working lives. Take time to shop for the most nutritious and cost-effective food, use them to cook meals from scratch and then sort out the resulting waste into the correct recycling boxes. Commuting time should be spent walking, cycling or on public transport, even if that means doing so from distant satellite towns. More time should be spent reading, keeping up with the latest political developments and meditating, on top of – of course – looking after family, travelling, spending time with friends and doing whatever else you want to do. All of this, it is said, is required for a healthy and happy life and a stable, enduring planet – indeed, just about everyone agrees that, ideally, we would all live in this way.

There is just one problem: time. There is often not enough time to do all of the above, and compromises often have to be made. Look after the children or exercise? Get a good night’s sleep or get up early and walk to work? With limited time at our disposal, often the things we want to be or should be doing conflict with each. Which begs the question: how can we give people more time to enjoy their lives, ensure they keep fit and don’t wreck the planet?

There is one obvious answer. Most of us spend at least 37 hours a week working. After sleeping, it is likely the activity we do most during a typical week. Which, when you think about it, is madness: you may spend more time sitting next to your boss or a particular colleague than you do sitting next to your partner. Surely some time can be taken out of work and given back to people to spend as they wish, for the betterment of their lives and everyone else’s?

That is why people have begun to suggest a direct and radical solution. The introduction of a four-day week would see the working week lose a day and the weekend gain one (whether that should be Monday or Friday is currently an open question). Companies and other employers would be mandated to pay their workers the same amount of annual pay for working one less day each week; employees would receive the same amount of money for spending less time working. Likewise, it would genuinely be less time working: employers wouldn’t be able to squish five days’ worth of hours into four, for example.

The benefits of a four-day week

In addition to more time, the introduction of a four-day week would have several other advantages. Studies, international comparisons and company-level trials of the regime have shown that working a shorter working week boosts productivity during those hours of work (New Zealand firm Perpetual Guardian moved to a four-day week and saw a 24 percentage point increase in work-life balance as well as improvements to productivity, for example) . People may be working fewer hours, but they are doing more useful activity in those hours.

A four-day week may also be important for employee wellbeing. Working fewer hours and having more time for leisure or to spend time with family has been shown to increase happiness and reduce stress. Indeed, it is important to remember that the five-day working week has not been set in stone for time immemorial – it was the result of hard-fought changes to policy won during the industrial revolution. While improving pay and working conditions has remained high on the agenda for policy makers, trade unions and other organisations, reducing the number of hours people have to work has disappeared as a policy objective. The lack of a movement in favour of a shorter working week has been particularly jarring given extreme working hours have spiked in recent decades. (This looks set to change in the present context). Bringing it back to the agenda in the form of a four-day week may have a longer lasting impact on people’s wellbeing.

Indeed, the introduction of a four-day week may help address some of the more structural challenges facing our economy presently. There is currently a huge inequality in the way work is distributed: there are a lot of people at the high-earning managerial and technical end of the spectrum that are often working more hours than the standard nine-to-five, and a lot of people at the other end of the line who are unemployed or want to work more hours than they are presently. This inequality is likely to be exacerbated by the onward march of automation, which is likely to reduce the amount of worthwhile work available and in doing so concentrate it in the hands of those high-earning managerial and technical folks. Reducing the amount of time they can spend working may open up opportunities for other people to join them in these fields, either through job shares or new positions.

The four-day week: obstacles and opportunities

Having said that, there is one clear downside to the four-day week: it’s a blunt instrument for a complex problem, as it doesn’t recognise the diversity of the modern economy. While a four-day week would alleviate some of the stress out of the working week for many nine-to-fivers, it would be little comfort for people on zero-hours contracts, for whom any stable work would be welcome. Likewise, freelancers, contractors and the self-employed may be put at a disadvantage if their hours are not regulated in the same way. A four-day week also doesn’t help the single mother who has to hold onto several part-time jobs at once to earn a living. The British economy is a hotchpotch of different working hours and lifestyles, and a four-day week would only aid an increasingly small subset of that diversity.

However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the policy. On the contrary, it could be through trialling and testing the idea that we get a sense for its real benefits. And in the short-term, that is where the unrecognised potential of the four-day week lies: unlike other policy ideas, which require governmental and bureaucratic time and effort to pilot, the four-day week can be trialled at the company, local authority or other organisational level. For example, in January, The Wellcome Trust announced that it could be the first large employer in the UK to try out a four-day week for its staff. It remains to be seen what the outcome of the shift will be – The Wellcome Trust hopes it will improve productivity and work-life balance – but the fact that companies can introduce the idea swiftly and efficiently means we may soon have a lot of data that could inform whether it gets adopted everywhere. Experimentation is often the way that radical ideas become reality, and the low bar to doing so could be the four-day week’s greatest asset.

The four-day week is an idea that is gaining momentum, and with perhaps good reason: the fact that it can make people happier and more productive means it would be a win-win for just about everyone. The fact that the policy is blind to many modern working lifestyles is something that needs to be addressed, but the ease with which companies can start experimenting with it means that we should soon know whether it’s worth becoming a permanent part of contemporary existence. And the best part? You would no longer have an excuse for skipping the gym or driving to work…

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Jack Perry

Jack is a trustee of Citizen's Basic Income Network Scotland.

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