The four-day week - an idealistic dream or a survival strategy?
26 Oct 2020
Astrid Allen, Managing Director, Astrid Flowers Ltd
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About the author
Astrid Allen has 20 years of experience on education, skills, employment and cultural development initiatives. Her consultancy, Astrid Flowers Ltd, delivers research, evaluation and project management services.
At the start of 2020 a national debate on whether to reduce the traditional working week to four days was gathering pace. Now, a government backed shorter working week has become a necessity to help businesses struggling to survive the economic fall-out from the pandemic. What can we learn from this sudden move to short time working and what should endure?
Before Covid-19, the four-day week was promoted as a way of reducing working hours, while maintaining levels of pay and productivity. Case studies had shown that a reduced working week could deliver a range of benefits. Staff reported an improved work-life balance and less time spent on unproductive ways of working. Organisations saw improvements to work quality and lower rates of absence. Jeremy Corbyn had even adopted the creation of a four-day week within a decade (with no loss of pay) as Labour policy. The concept of cutting hours without reducing pay was not, however, uncontentious. Some organisations struggled with the operational and economic realities of implementing a four-day week.
Our current situation is very different. A short working week, with reduced pay, is turning into an unintended reality for thousands of workers. The government’s revamped Job Support Scheme, running from November 2020 to the end of April 2021, will provide support for those employers who retain employees on reduced working hours. The government will pay 62% of hours not worked, with the employer contributing just 5%. Workers will only have to work a minimum of 20% of their normal hours.
While the enhanced package will help workers facing reduced hours, it will not bridge the gap for all. Low paid workers were already finding it hard to make ends meet, some contract workers will continue to struggle on alone and for others, it comes too late.
A shorter week is also unlikely to be a viable option for care and key workers or those working in sectors where products/services/skills are in short supply. Indeed, those that continue to work excessively long hours may view a five-day week as a more realistic ambition. Legislation currently requires individuals to work no more than 48 hours per week (so, notionally, a six-day week) and even then, there is an extensive list of exceptions and most people can agree to ‘opt out’.
Even where it is possible, a reduced working week in the current circumstances is unlikely to deliver the range of benefits that would be possible in ‘normal’ times. Rather than maintaining pay and boosting well-being, for most the move will be a hit to their earnings and an indication of long-term job insecurity. Opportunities for increased wellbeing will be more than offset by the anxiety, uncertainties and restrictions on family life caused by Covid-19. Beyond the financial savings to businesses, it is unlikely to deliver great rewards.
While an enforced shorter week may be an essential short-term damage limitation exercise right now, both organisations and politicians should consider maintaining elements of the model in the future, when the context will better allow social and wellbeing benefits to emerge. Those countries with pre-existing government backed short-time working schemes, such as Germany’s Kurzarbeit, appear to be better placed to withstand local and global economic shocks. Incorporating this kind of flexibility into standard employment contracts could allow businesses to cope with peaks and troughs in workload and leave fewer people in precarious, temporary forms of work.
As well as a mechanism to help businesses during lean times, there is also an argument for the normalisation of the four-day week. During the lockdown stages of the pandemic Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand prime minister, posted on Facebook suggesting that a four-day week could boost their ailing tourism and hospitality sector. In the UK, a cross-party letter to Rishi Sunak focused on some of the longer-term benefits to be gained from a four-day week.
Where four-day weeks have been successfully trialled in ‘normal’ times, they have often been framed by a wider programme of initiatives to support improved productivity e.g. shortened meeting times and working virtually. Offering reduced hours, alongside other forms of flexible working such as flexi-hours, home-working, job-sharing etc. could be an important part of re-building a more resilient and healthier workplace in the future (see IES blog).
A sustained adoption of a shorter working week could bring bigger societal gains. It has the potential to bring far greater equality of opportunity to those who have caring responsibilities (usually women) and others who find it difficult to consistently work a five-day week (due to physical or learning disabilities, long term health conditions or mental health issues). The normalisation of a four-day week may also allow (a growing scarcity of) work to be shared among more people, thereby lowering levels of unemployment in the longer term.
Now is the time for all stakeholders to come together and carefully evaluate the impact of a reduced working week to see what lessons can be learned for the future, in times of growth as well as in times of adversity.
Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.