The launch last week of a UK four-day week pilot program continues the momentum that has been growing globally in recent years for a shorter working week with no loss of pay for employees.
The UK pilot will take place over six months, from June this year, alongside coordinated pilot programs in Ireland and the United States. These trials will be based on the principle of the 100:80:100 model — 100 percent of the pay for 80 percent of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain at least 100 percent productivity.
Like the many already existing four-day week employers, the participating companies and organizations are expected to see the benefits of a better work-life balance for workers and recognize the productivity gains on offer. They will also be rewarded for being pioneers of the movement: after Atom Bank became the largest employer in the UK to implement a four-day week in November last year, it recorded a 500 percent increase in job applications.
The pilot programs are being organized by 4 Day Week Global, in partnership with the 4 Day Week UK Campaign, leading think tank Autonomy, and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University, and Boston College. Formally assessing the trials will be vital to building evidence that can inform future government policy on a shorter working week for all of society. After all, the aim is for all workers to benefit from a reduced working week, and not just those fortunate enough to work in a suitable sector and for a forward-thinking employer.
No country has yet to legislate a four-day week, so clearly these pilot programs are needed. The UK almost led the way. Labour’s pledge at the 2019 election to reduce the workweek to thirty-two hours within ten years was a significant milestone — the first major political party in a G7 nation to commit to a large reduction in formal work hours in one hundred years.
Other countries are edging closer. In 2021, Iceland reported a successful trial of a shorter working week in its public sector between 2015 and 2019 that resulted in a boost to productivity and workers’ well-being. Scotland is putting £10 million toward a trial in the coming months as part of its promise to pursue a well-being economy. Spain is also currently designing a multiyear pilot project for interested companies. In Japan, the government recommended in 2021 that companies allow their workers to opt for a four-day week, with electronics giant Panasonic recently becoming one of the biggest companies to do just that.
All of this progress is happening because these companies, organizations, and governments recognize there are multiple benefits to reducing working hours, particularly in relation to five key areas.
First, a reduced workweek provides workers with more time for those nonwork parts of life that are often neglected: rest (both sleep and the various forms of rest we need while awake), leisure (which can range from spending time with friends and family to pursuing hobbies and passion projects), and “life admin” (tasks like shopping, cleaning, managing finances, and the many parenting duties). Currently, too many of us are spending excessive hours at work each week, and then cramming our rest, leisure, and life admin activities into the few remaining hours, if we are not too tired to do them.
The second key benefit is for employers. Put simply, a rested worker is a better worker. In 2019, the Health and Safety Executive found that the greatest cause of sick absences from work was work-related stress (54 percent). As such, a Henley Business School study in 2019 found that a four-day week could save UK businesses an estimated £104 billion annually, because workers would be happier, less stressed, and take fewer days off ill, and be more productive as a result.
Third, studies show that shortening the workweek would boost national productivity, just as it would do for individual companies and organizations. It also provides an opportunity to rebalance employment to decrease both the number of people who are overworked and those who are unemployed and underemployed. In industries that operate more hours than 9 to 5, new jobs would need to be created to make up for the reduced hours of existing workers. Government financial assistance would likely be required to enable this rebalance, but the benefits in decreasing unemployment and underemployment would be an excellent return on investment.
Fourth, a reduced working week has incalculable benefits for society. Preventive health care would be boosted, as individuals are more rested and happier with their work-life balance. They can spend more time with family members and friends. A four-day week also provides an opportunity to improve gender equality, as men (62 percent of full-time UK workers) would be able to spend more time at home to assist with the various types of unpaid work that have disproportionately fallen on women, such as domestic chores and parenting.
Finally, a shorter working week benefits the environment by reducing the daily commute and its associated carbon emissions. The car remains the most common mode of travel in the UK, with around 58 percent of workers driving themselves to work each day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Long hours at work are also associated with high-carbon patterns of consumption, as being time-poor leads to purchasing convenient products such as packaged and processed meals.
The five-day week replaced the six-day week around a century ago, with US carmaker Henry Ford leading the way at his factories in 1926. Thirty years later, then US vice president Richard Nixon promised Americans they would only have to work four days “in the not too distant future.” Yet for generation after generation, there has been little to no decrease in working hours, despite substantial productivity gains primarily due to technological progress.
Within days of the launch of the UK pilot program, however, hundreds of companies and organizations have expressed their interest in taking part. This pilot is poised to play a big part in moving the UK in the direction of a four-day working week. It finally seems that change is coming.