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The 4 day work week – is it inevitable and how should employers prepare?

From June to December 2022, 61 UK employers took part in the world’s largest trial of a four-day working week. Staff working for these employees saw a 20% reduction in working hours but no reduction in wages.

Results from the trial (which was organised by researchers at Cambridge University, think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign, and researchers at Oxford University and Boston College) were presented to MPs recently. The findings included the following:

  • stress and illness in the workforce was significantly reduced
  • the number of sick days decreased by 65%
  • worker retention levels improved
  • 62% of employees reported it easier to combine work with social life
  • company revenue barely changed during the trial period (it increased marginally by 1.4% on average for the 23 organisations able to provide data)

92% of the employers that participated in the trial have decided to continue with a 4-day working week.

Other 4-day working week research conducted in Japan in 2019 also confirmed that a shorter work week could be good for the planet, as it leads to us making less intensive consumer choices and travelling less. On top of this, World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation data paints a stark picture of longer working weeks; showing that working long hours causes mental health crises, chronic disease crises and kills around 745,000 people every year!

Time for change?

Many think that we are seeing the start of the biggest change to working hours since the early 1900s. It was in the early 1900s that the idea of having both Saturdays and Sundays as rest days first came about. This was however not an overnight change triggered by government legislation. Instead, the change came about gradually, as a result of years of campaigns pushed by trade unions, some religious institutions, some employers and commercial leisure companies that saw two rest days as a fantastic business opportunity.

In the same way that unions played a key part in pushing for the 2 day weekend, it is likely that unions will want to be at the forefront of pushing decision makers and employers towards a 4-day, 32 hour week. In the last couple of years, unions have been less focussed on pushing for working time reductions given the need for a laser sharp focus on pushing for increased rates of pay at a time of extreme levels of inflation. With levels of inflation predicted to slow however, it is likely the 4-day working week will start to climb towards the top of union agendas.

No current plans for legislative change

At the end of last year, unions and MPs such as Green MP Caroline Lucas and the former shadow chancellor, wrote a letter to the business minister Kevin Hollinrake. The letter, which was backed by think tanks and the Trade Union Congress, urged the Government to legislate to give workers the right to request a four-day working week with no loss of pay. The letter stated that the five-day work week was ‘no longer conducive to the needs of the 21st century’, having been created over 100 years ago for an ‘unrecognisable’ industrial and agricultural economy and stipulated that the Covid-19 pandemic “has shown us that the future of work can and should look different if we want to create a model that is better suited to the needs of families, women and carers”.

A Government spokesperson has since responded, confirming that: ‘there are no plans for the government to mandate a four-day working week. The Government is putting choice at the heart of our approach to flexible working and employers are free to offer four-day weeks if they choose to.’

Despite it appearing then that there will be no imminent legislative change, employers need to remember that workers are wanting more and (at least in the current tight labour market) are willing to push for more. The pandemic brought about a change in mindset amongst many people as it highlighted the fragility of life and led to a fundamental reappraisal of what life is about. This has caused life to win out over work and many will see a 4-day work week as a steadfast way to attain the work/life balance they crave, without taking a financial hit. The recent UK trial also highlights that this is no longer a pipe-dream, but something that is a real possibility. Workers may even decide to organise if they see it as the way to achieve something they care about deeply.

The pandemic brought about a change in mindset amongst many people as it highlighted the fragility of life and led to a fundamental reappraisal of what life is about.


Preparation; the key to success for employers

It is important that as employers you do not ignore this growing demand, as it will hit you in one way or another; either because unions make this an organised campaign, or because an incoming labour government may put it into legislation, or simply because it becomes an issue of talent retention and attraction as your competitors move to a 4-day week. It is interesting to note that 15% of employees involved in the UK’s recent 4-day week trial said that no amount of money would induce them to accept a five-day schedule over the four-day week to which they are now accustomed. In a tight labour market one organisation’s 4-day week recruitment solution soon becomes another organisation’s turnover problem.

It is therefore prudent, particularly where you already have a unionised or partly unionised workforce, to do some scenario planning now to consider whether you can embrace a 4-day week and exactly how that would look like for your business. What would work and what wouldn’t?

If you come to the conclusion that you really do not believe you could accommodate a 4-day working week, you should at least be clear on what your argumentation and strategy is for resisting it.

Remember, it may not be a questions of simply diving in at the deep end straight away. There are a number of sensible compromises that organisations can offer or at least explore as a starting point, such as 9-day fortnights, condensed work weeks, shorter summer hours for longer winter hours, no meeting Fridays or half-day Fridays.

It is certainly better as employers to be exploring this topic now, before there are any significant forces (either legislative or otherwise) pushing you to offer the 4-day work week. If you would like legal or HR support in doing so, please do not hesitate to contact either our employment law team at Clarkslegal or our HR team at Forbury People.

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