Out with the old: the rise of the four-day work week

Out with the old: the rise of the four-day work week

February 7, 2022

Yes, you read that right. A four-day work week. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Well, perhaps not. Offices in the UK are currently abuzz with the news of a trial taking place in June of this year, which will see around 30 companies across the country adopt a four-day work week for a six-month pilot period. The programme is being run by 4 Day Week Global, in collaboration with researchers at Oxford, Cambridge, and Boston Universities. The trial will aim to determine whether employees are able to maintain 100% productivity for 80% of the time, with no deduction in pay. News of this project has spread like wildfire, receiving a warm welcome across the country, and brightening up the bleakest months of the year.

Crossing our fingers and biting our nails in anticipation, we’re all thinking the same thing: this handful of companies better not screw it up for the rest of us.

A three-day weekend is no longer a mere pipe dream, a distant utopia that exists exclusively in your head whilst you fantasise on your lunch break. If all runs smoothly during this six-month trial, a four-day work week could become a tangible possibility for many employees across the country.

For decades, a five-day work week has been the begrudgingly-accepted norm. But society has seen dramatic changes in recent years. The question arises: need we rely upon the archaic model of a five-day week in the 21st century?

In the wake of the global pandemic, our collective attitude towards work has shifted. If you’d have told me two years ago that we’d all be working from home and seriously considering a four-day work week, I wouldn’t have believed you. But more and more companies are waking up to the fact that their employees do not need to be glued to their desks for 10 hours of the day, five days a week, in order to produce results.

Here at Nicholson Glover, our Senior Consultants have been enjoying a four-day week for around four months now (we’re ahead of the curve, we know). The results have been overwhelmingly positive thus far, and our co-director, Rudy Fernando, described the initiative as “a very small compromise for those that value their time”.

That’s not to say that a four-day work week is a quick-fix that, if applied nationwide, would solve all of society’s problems. It’s a complex issue, one that warrants deeper exploration.

Employee wellbeing

Take a moment to think about the countless ways you could spend your extra day off work each week. Fancy taking up a pottery class? Learning French? Joining a netball team? Or simply having a lie-in, doing your laundry, and getting your life in order? The choice is yours.

There is a lot more to life than work. Obvious as it may sound, this is something we tend to lose sight of when caught up in the whirlwind of our day-to-day lives.

As a society, we underestimate the importance of spending time away from work. To have an extra day each week to spend as we please – cultivating interests, catching up on sleep, seeing loved ones – would do wonders for our mental and physical health as well as our general wellbeing.

According to the charity Mind, 1 in 6 people in England report experiencing a mental health problem in any given week. Whilst there’s no easy remedy to this problem, a reduction of the working week would no doubt present an opportunity for individuals to take a deep breath, recuperate, and focus on self-care. New Eagle Hill Consulting research recently found that 83% of workers in the US are convinced that a four-day work week would help ease burnout.

Working excessive hours can have a hugely detrimental impact on employee wellbeing, and the work culture of Japan exemplifies this clearly. Japan is notorious for extreme working hours, and this intense attitude towards work leads to many individuals succumbing to stress-induced illness. In extreme cases, approximately 10,000 workers die each year from overwork, known in Japanese as karoshi.

Shortening the working week is a viable option that should be taken into consideration if solely for the sake of employee health and wellbeing.

Increased productivity

Employees aren’t the only ones who would reap benefits from a four-day week.

Companies could see a positive payoff too. Some traditional employers may consider the amount of hours worked per week as inextricably linked to productivity. This is an outdated assumption, as evidence shows that a shorter working week could actually dramatically improve the productivity of an organisation. Gone are the days of believing that whoever sits at their desk twiddling their thumbs for the longest is the hardest worker.

Rudy explains that “meaningful productivity is optimised when you empower people with the autonomy, freedom, and flexibility to get their work done when they need to”. Describing how the team made the four-day week work for them, he states that “the reality of condensing a 50-hour week into 40 hours is that, in order to compensate, we need to work more intensely during those 40 hours”.

Many companies have opted to pursue a four-day work week off their own bat, and the results speak for themselves. Microsoft Japan reported a 40% increase in productivity after adopting the progressive working model.

Furthermore, the employee wellbeing that stems from a shorter working week does not only benefit the individual, but the wider company as well. When employees are less stressed and burnt-out, the quality of their work will likely be higher. It could also save the company a significant amount of money, as poor mental health costs companies across the UK £33-42 billion per year. An overworked workforce is statistically more likely to take sick days, or experience decreased motivation at work.

A shorter work week could well improve the productivity of a business. But beyond that, it could help organisations cultivate a happier, more dedicated workforce.

Environmental benefit

A four-day work week does not only benefit employers and employees. It’s actually a more sustainable working model that could help to reduce air pollution.

If practically every company across the country implemented a shorter work week, this would mean that nationwide, commuting into work would be cut down by one whole day every week. This would have a monumental impact on the environment; a study commissioned by the Four Day Week campaign from Platform London determined that this would reduce UK emissions by 127 million tonnes, a decrease of over 20%. In other words, this would equate to taking the whole private car fleet across the UK off the roads entirely.

There’s another, perhaps less obvious way that a four-day week could reduce our carbon footprint. For an additional day each week, it’s likely that people across the country would be engaging in more low-carbon activities. The pace of life would be slower; less about quick-fixes to get you through the working day. For example, for one more day each week, you may opt to purchase fresh ingredients and take the time to cook that meal you’ve always been meaning to try, instead of settling for the last plastic-packaged frozen ready-meal left standing for convenience’s sake. Or, maybe you would opt to engage in a low-carbon activity such as cycling or running, as opposed to driving to the office for that one extra day each week.

Overall, the evidence decidedly points towards a shortened working week having a majorly positive environmental impact.

Difficult to implement

So far, we’ve presented the four-day work week as a pretty airtight model. However, one major crack remains on show: the shortened week would be near impossible to implement UK-wide in one fell swoop.

Despite the trial going ahead in June, we shouldn’t get our hopes up that a four-day work week is just around the corner. Chances are, there’s a long way to go yet.

A number of sizeable obstacles stand ahead on the road towards a universal four-day week. For one thing, the model is completely industry-dependant. In safety-critical sectors it would be difficult to draw such a clear line in the sand between work and free time by shortening the work week. For people in the public sector, for example in the military or NHS, a four-day week still seems a long way off.

And this is a small part of a much wider problem. Adopting a four-day work week is no easy feat, as it would be a massive cultural shift that would require an institutional overhaul. Our entire society is founded upon a five-day work week and functions around this established model. If the government were to snap their fingers and introduce a four-day work week tomorrow, we’d be in for a rude awakening, simply due to the fact that we’re not used to the structure. The adoption of a four-day week requires long-term and gradual financial, legal, and institutional changes before it stands a chance of succeeding.

However, that’s not to say it’s completely out of reach. A four-day work week is now a topical subject that is being put forward for serious consideration. It’s the talk of the town, and soon enough, cries for a shortened work week will be too deafening for many companies to ignore.


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