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Are there health benefits to a four-day working week?

The pandemic has shown us that we can change our working habits quickly when we really need to, with homeworking proving so successful for many organisations that they intend to keep some form of it beyond the pandemic.   

Now European politicians and think tanks are suggesting we adopt a shortened week with no reduction in pay.

For most of us it sounds like a dream scenario, but is it really too good to be true?

There is some research to suggest that far from being an unrealistic luxury, a four-day working week could offer several social and economical benefits, creating jobs, reducing business overheads, lowering stress, increasing productivity and boosting the consumer market in some sectors.

The last big shake-up of the working week took place around a century ago, when 10 to 15-hour shifts six days a week were reduced to around eight hours five days a week. At the time the famous car mogul Henry Ford was quoted in a magazine saying:

“Leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products."

To put it bluntly, people who are overworked with no time to spend money aren't very good for the economy. According to TUC research, the average Briton works the equivalent of 2.5 weeks more each year than mainland Europeans. While our hard work may be commendable, time doesn't necessarily translate as productivity. It is a classic misconception to think that being present equals being productive. The reality is that the more time we spend working, the less free time we have to spend relaxing, socialising and enjoying ourselves. Work demands without reprieve can make us feel unhappy, which in turn can impact our ability to do a good job.

The latest statistics from HSE show that there were 828,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety between 2019 and 2020, resulting in a loss of 17.9 million working days. This was statistically significantly higher than the previous year.

Are British people overworked and stressed out?

A hundred years ago business owners reduced working hours because they recognised that advancements in technology meant workers could do a lot more in less time. Even though huge technological advancements over the last few decades have continued to boost productivity and efficiency, we still work to the same model used in the '20s. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) argues that where the benefits of technology could be enjoyed by workers in the form of more leisure time today, they are instead being hoarded by bosses and shareholders in the form of bigger profits. 

Will COVID-19 be the catalyst for a four-day working week?

Introducing a four-day work week with no pay cuts could create up to half a million public sector jobs in the wake of the pandemic, according to independent think tank Autonomy. Two lockdowns in 2020 forced many UK organisations to make employee cuts or to close down completely. A shorter working week could offer a solution to rising unemployment rates post-pandemic, as it means work can be divided among a greater number of people. While employing more people inevitably costs more money, there are likely to be savings elsewhere. Increasing leisure time may help reduce stress, enhance health and wellbeing and as a result lower absenteeism and boost job performance. It also reduces the burden on employers by lowering rent, electricity bills and other costs associated with running an office for a full day.

Do people want to work four days a week?

A recent YouGov survey found that 63% of UK workers would like a four-day working week. Various experiments show that far from losing out, businesses actually gain from reducing hours. In 2019, Microsoft Japan tested the four-day working week for a month and found its employees were happier and productivity increased by an impressive 40%.

Will Stronge, the director of Autonomy, the think tank campaigning for a four-day working week, said:

“In order to make sure we don’t have severe austerity again, we need to make sure that we redistribute what cash we have, or incomes, among the population. The important thing is job creation and job retention. We need as many potential solutions as we can, creating jobs in the public sector, but also keeping people on payroll.”

Will a four-day working week be better for our health?

The less time we spend sitting in front of a computer the better. Even with a healthy ergonomic set-up, it's important to get up and move around frequently. The same rules apply on our days off. If you spend your extra eight hours of leisure time each week slumped on the sofa staring at a screen, you're unlikely to gain any physical health benefits from the four-day work week. 

Just as it's important to maintain a good posture and move frequently at work, it's important to try to stay active during your leisure time.

Physical benefits aside, an extra day off could help with mental wellbeing. According to the YouGov survey, more than seven in ten Britons (71%) think that the nation would be happier as a result of having an extra day off. People will have more time to spend with loved ones, develop new skills, pursue artistic endeavours, relax, or simply do the things they enjoy. With more time and space away from work, we should return feeling more energised and ready to engage.

What are the cons of a four-day working week?

For some organisations, moving towards reduced working hours would be operationally complex, requiring a complete dismantling of existing systems and costing a lot of money in the process.

Another concern is that workloads won't really be reduced, and staff will have to squeeze the same amount of work into less time - potentially causing greater stress and health problems.

In 2019 the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) opposed the suggestion of a four-day working week, claiming that “rigid approaches feel like a step in the wrong direction” at a time when organisations are finally beginning to embrace flexible working. 

They key is flexibility

Posturite’s Head Consultant - ergonomist and chartered physiotherapist Katharine Metters, believes the discussion isn’t as simple as instigating a four day working week. She says:

“What we need is for businesses to be clear about what their needs are and then think how best this can be achieved. We’ve gained new knowledge during the pandemic of what’s possible with flexible working - especially regarding our employees’ health and welfare, and thus their ability to perform well. For some businesses a good solution may be shorter working weeks, shorter days, or other different work patterns to fit in with personal needs like family care or ongoing learning. This is an exciting time and one where we should put people at the centre of the discussion. In doing this, businesses should reap the rewards with increased productivity and happier, more engaged employees.”

Perhaps at the heart of the matter is the onus we put on time, as opposed to output. Instead of clocking up hours, shouldn’t we be focusing on the quality and efficiency of the work we produce? Is it time to reassess society’s values and rethink what work means to us? Clocking up hours may look good on paper, but is it good for society? Is it good for us as individuals?

Andrew Barnes, author of the book the 4 Day Week, thinks not. He said:

“The reality is that working five days a week the research is consistent. It indicates that you are only productive approximately three hours a day. So the problem is that we use time as a surrogate for understanding productivity seriously.”

What works for one person may not work for another. They key to improving the happiness and productivity of employees is to observe, listen and research. We can’t assume that giving staff an extra day off will solve all our problems; but being more flexible with our working practices may well help us find a better balance. What we do know for sure is that 2020 has been a year of significant change in the world of work. The liberation from sedentary, unhealthy office habits continues - and from our perspective as advocates of workplace wellbeing, this can only be a good thing.