The Four-Day Working Week: Pros, Cons, and Potential Realisation

Clara Browne-Amorim
Protesters at the May Day Parade, New York City, 1936
Source: New York Daily News Archive, Getty Images

In recent news, New Zealand Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has floated the idea of a four-day working week, replacing the traditional five-day 40-hour week. In this article, I wanted to explore the positives and negatives of this potential new work-lifestyle. Luckily, there have been many studies done into this practice: in the 2019 UK electoral campaign, Labour proposed the idea in its manifesto, in New Zealand there have been multiple companies that have taken on the proposal, most famously the company Perpetual Guardian, and in the Netherlands one municipality has fully enforced it.

In the 8-week experiment by Perpetual Guardian, the results were largely positive; the 240 employees would choose one day a week to take off but continue to be paid for a five-day week. The company reported 6-12.5% increases in revenue and profitability, happier staff, and stress levels decreasing. Now the company’s founder, Andrew Barnes, experiment has interested New Zealand’s prime minister to consider the four-day working week as one way to rebuild the country’s domestic tourism industry following Covid-19.

Websites advocating and marketing four-day work week careers list numerous social positives, including: environmental benefits due to less time commuting (a top cause of traffic pollution) and reductions of energy usage in offices. The reduction of work hours has also been advocated as a means to reduce the gender pay gap: the redistribution of paid and unpaid work would occur as two working parents could both contribute a full day of childcare.

There could also be potential economic benefits; workers with more free time would have more opportunities to seek out leisure activities – going to a café, to a restaurant, going shopping etc, meaning more money would be invested back into the economy. If companies were also reporting increases in profitability and revenue, such as Perpetual Guardian, it is easy to see why the idea is appealing. Last but not least, experiments reported lower levels of staff sickness and stress: staff stress levels decreased from 45% to 38% whereas in 2017/18, 15.4 million working days in the UK were lost due to work-related stress.

The practice of four-day working week has been openly supported by New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardedn. Source: Business Insider

In the UK, Labour’s manifesto proposal was a response to the high percentage (WIRED: 63%) of Britons wanting a four-day working week. The political party’s proposal was backed by a study by economic historian Lord Robert Skideslky, who supported the idea but did report negatives. He warned against workplace exhaustion, arguing the reduced amount of hours could cause increased stress to get work done quicker, which is an issue Perpetual Guardian reported in one of its teams. He also warned against the negative impact a nationally enforced four-day work week could have on unskilled and zero-hour workers who depend on the hours they work for their wages, and where the work does not depend on mental productivity as much as physical presence. It is clear that, despite promising experiments in companies with relatively low staff numbers, the proposal of a four-day working week will need to be considered separately for every industry and every workforce; the way forward would not be a blanket enforcement if it meant certain industries would not work this way.

Skidelsky also raised the concern of a ‘new dualism’ in the workplace if said negative impact were considered; only some companies would be able to afford free time for their employees. In the name of market competition there is the potential that other companies, of which some of whom already push against the boundaries of workers’ rights, could bring on a new horizon of unpredictable and longer work hours to the sectors that would not function with blanket shorter hours. It is certain that any fundamental change to the workplace would bring on many new uncertainties and potentials for concern, which would need to be weighed fairly against its benefits.

One question proposed by WIRED was:
• “Is it a promised utopia; or the suppression of the right to work?”

To which it could be asked:
• Would there be a fair way to apply this policy to certain industries, without creating ‘new dualism’?
• Could the renewed perspective Covid-19 has brought to many worker’s work-life balance, and self-defined working hours be the catalyst for a change in working hours?


Suggested Further Reading:

Forbes, The 4-Day Workweek: Has Its Time Come?

WIRED, Why four-day working weeks may not be the utopia they seem

The Guardian, ‘Snap back’? Jacinda Ardern snaps forward with a four-day week: no wonder she’s popular

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