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What are the pros and cons of a 4-day week?

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
<span>Brits spend an average of two hours and 53 minutes working each day. </span>Photo: Getty
Brits spend an average of two hours and 53 minutes working each day. Photo: Getty

An increasing number of companies are considering switching to a four-day working week to help boost staff work-life balance.

The Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity based in the UK, announced earlier this year it was considering moving all staff to a shorter working week. “Like many organisations, Wellcome is continually looking at how we can increase the impact we make towards our charitable mission and improve staff wellbeing,” Ed Whiting, Wellcome’s director of policy and chief of staff, said in a statement.

“Moving to a four-day week is one of a number of very early ideas that we are looking at that might be beneficial to welfare and productivity for everyone at Wellcome.”

A four-day week has long been touted as an answer to the productivity problems faced by British workers. On average, British workers take only a 34-minute lunch break and typically work 10 hours overtime each week, which is often unpaid.

Despite this, Brits are unproductive. The average time spent working is two hours and 53 minutes each day, according to a 2017 UK study, with the rest spent on social media, chatting, and other distractions.

But would a four-day working week suit everyone — and what are the pros and cons?

Higher productivity

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, switched its 240 staff from a five-day to a four-day week last November and maintained their pay. A study of the trial released earlier this year found productivity increased in the four days they worked — so there was no fall in the total amount of work done.

“When we started everybody’s initial reaction was, ‘How am I ever going do my work in four days rather than five.’ So the fact that the trial indicates that not only could they do their work in four days, but they could do it better in four days, is something I find extraordinarily surprising,” Andrew Barnes, Perpetual Guardian’s founder, said in a statement.

Lower stress

The New Zealand study also found employees felt less stressed on a four-day working week, as well as more empowered and committed. Employees reported a 7% drop in stress levels, compared to a staff survey in 2017.

Employee satisfaction

When a company trusts and supports their staff in a new approach to work, it helps to build up trust — which can improve employee satisfaction. A four-day working week also helps to improve work-life balance, as an extra day off allows for more flexibility around family and friends, holidays, and other important occasions, as well as doctors’ appointments.

Improving work-life balance also encourages people to work harder and improves employee retention, research has shown.

Environmental benefits

A shorter working week also has a positive impact on the environment. A reduction in working hours correlates with a reduction in energy consumption, according to economists David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot.

A four-day week cuts down on commuting to and from work, as well as the energy output that comes from running an office.

Gender equality

Research has repeatedly shown the gender pay gap expands after women have children — otherwise known as the “motherhood penalty” — which impacts both pay and career progression. By the time a first child has turned 20 years old, mothers earn about 30% less per hour, on average, than similarly educated fathers, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

A four-day week would allow either parent an extra day to commit to childcare or family obligations if needed. With many women forced into working part time due to childcare, flexible working over fewer days could help keep women in the workplace.

Save on overhead costs

Keeping a workplace running is costly, so keeping all employees out of the office one day a week would reduce electricity and maintenance costs.

Not all businesses work the same way

There are, however, some drawbacks to working a four-day week. Not all businesses are able to shut for a weekday, particularly if customers expect people to be available five days a week. Some industries require a 24/7 presence.

Likewise, some employees may not appreciate working longer hours over four days to make up for an extra day off, as not everyone works in the same way. Employees will likely be expected to work the same 40-hour week, but in four days instead of five — which could also adversely impact childcare arrangements.

Failure to hit targets

Some workers may feel under pressure to meet targets and finish projects in the four allocated working days, or risk failing to reach requirements. In some cases, employees may end up working from home on their day off anyway to ensure they get their work done.

With this in mind, it may be better to offer employees a flexible working schedule that benefits them — rather than enforcing a universal four-day week or five-day week.