Ideas: What would a four-day work week mean for the UK?

For many British workers, the notion of working eight hours a day, five days a week is so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to imagine another way of life. But in the past few years, campaigners have started calling for something that has the potential to revolutionise the way we work: the introduction of a four-day work week. Here, we’ve taken a closer look at the concept

The concept of the four-day week is simple: full-time employees work four days a week instead of the traditional five, with no reduction in salary.

There are two different ways to implement this. Under a “compressed working week”, employees simply work longer hours over four days, and take the fifth day off. This means that the actual length of the working week remains the same, but the employee enjoys a longer break. For the standard worker putting in 40 hours a week, that would mean working ten hours a day, four days a week, rather than the standard eight.

The second option is more radical. The actual number of hours in the working week is reduced, and staff aren’t expected to work longer days to make up for the lost time. In practice, this would mean that full-time staff would work around 32 hours per week — eight hours less than the traditional 40-hour model that is currently the standard for many businesses in the UK today.

Despite the shorter work week, staff would still hold “full-time employee” status, and National Insurance contributions, pensions, and annual leave would be unaffected.

The concept of a “true” four-day work week — in which staff have their hours reduced to allow them more time off with no reduction in pay — has gained a lot of traction in recent years. Groups like the 4 Day Week Campaign have been formed to help lobby for government support, and the idea has gained support with a number of left-wing groups, equalities bodies, and worker’s rights foundations.

Most notably, the idea was included in the Labour Party manifesto during the 2019 election, where they pledged to move the country to a four-day week by 2029.

Initially, the concept of a four-day work week seems like an impossible — if appealing — fantasy. After all, surely working less hours would mean an inevitable reduction in productivity, which could, in turn, have serious consequences for the wider UK economy? But, advocates for shortening the working week argue that this simply isn’t the case, and that the benefits would far outweigh the disadvantages.

According to campaigners, a four-day work week would be good for employees, the economy, and even the environment, and the benefits would be enough to offset the downsides that a shorter work week could cause. Some have even posited that a shorter working week could help to redress the worsening unemployment crisis we’re currently facing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, many people — particularly business owners — are understandably wary of the idea, arguing that a shorter working week would inevitably lead to drop in productivity, and that the overall cost of implementation would be too high.

So, there are arguments on both sides — but how does it all add up? We’ve explored the pros and cons of a four-day work week.

For workers, the appeal of spending less time at your desk while receiving the same salary is clear. After all, gaining an extra day would enable employees to have a better work-life balance, and it would greatly help to reduce stress, burnout, and other symptoms of overwork.

An additional day off every week could also be very beneficial in terms of helping full-time workers manage childcare arrangements and other personal responsibilities.

Advocates for the four-day week also argue that employers have a lot to gain from a shorter work week, particularly in terms of productivity and performance. Employees who are better rested and generally happier tend to be more motivated, which in turn could boost productivity and engagement. As such, campaigners argue that implementing a four-day week wouldn’t necessarily have a serious impact on output, making the plan financially feasible for businesses.

Staff who work less may also be healthier and less stressed, which may help to reduce the number of absences caused by illnesses, stress, and mental health conditions. Moving to a four-day work week could make companies more appealing places to work, which may help employers to recruit the best talent.

This could be especially helpful for smaller firms and start-ups who would struggle to offer competitive salaries, but which may be able to tempt high-quality candidates through their doors by offering a shorter work week.

Despite the benefits that advocates have outlined, many businesses are still understandably hesitant to adopt a shorter working week.

Even if optimistic predictions about a four-day week being good for productivity are true, there’s no denying that switching to this model could be incredibly expensive, at least initially. For instance, businesses might need to take on additional staff, and that can be costly, especially if this coincides with an overall decline in output or trade due to employees working less hours.

It may well be the case that businesses simply can’t afford to move to a shorter week without substantial government funding — and given the current deficit, this isn’t likely to be a priority for the Treasury any time soon.

There are also the logistical issues of moving to a four-day work week to consider. Businesses would need to ensure that they have enough staff working throughout the week to cover their basic operations, which would require careful planning and management.

For certain industries — particularly hospitality, retail, and other customer-facing sectors — businesses could be forced to choose between taking on more staff or reducing their opening hours, which will be a serious headache.

Right now, the prospect of a four-day working week will probably sound like a pipe dream to many in the UK. But, there was a time when the eight-hour day seemed radical and economically unviable, too.

So, what if working four days a week instead of five is simply the next step in the evolution of workers’ rights? At any rate, we’re still a long way off, and business owners and employers are likely to need a lot more persuading — and not to mention funding — before it becomes a reality.