Four-day week: Workers' mental health and companies' bottom lines may depend on it – Laura Waddell

Studies have shown that the four-day week reduces sick days, stress and burnout and boosts productivity

When smartphones became ubiquitous, it was seen as a problem that we couldn’t switch off; initially it offered the joy of sporadic text messaging and the game Snake, and then came email and all it might contain in our pockets, at all times. The conversation seems to have dissipated as more and more of life is lived digitally; the seamless jumbling of leisure and business where we use the same muscle memory to flick away notifications from Outlook and Candy Crush.

During the pandemic, there was talk about work patterns shifting like never before, but there has been less real political drive to translate these advancements to less time in the office. Zooming into meetings from home bookends my working week. I’m happier to have a balance of days in and out of the office. But the classic Monday to Friday? When I look at my options, it’s much less appealing than a four-day week.

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Academics at the University of Cambridge earlier this year concluded the UK’s biggest workplace study into the four-day week, testing 61 organisations across various industries including online retail, financial services, consultancy, housing, IT, hospitality, healthcare, and marketing. The findings were positive.

Researchers surveyed employees throughout the trial to gauge the effects of having an extra day of free time. Self-reported levels of anxiety and fatigue decreased across workforces, while mental and physical health improved,” they said. “Many survey respondents said they found it easier to balance work with both family and social commitments: 60 per cent of employees found an increased ability to combine paid work with care responsibilities, and 62 per cent reported it easier to combine work with social life.” Sounds good. It also suggests that UK workers are scrimping time on things that really matter to them.Belgium was the first European country to introduce legislation on a four-day week. Their 2022 ‘Labour Deal’ gave employees the opportunity to shorten the number of days they work per week. Although take-up has been slow, it is increasing. And Germany will run its own large four-day working week pilot next year, from February to December 2024.

Europe’s largest trade union, the UG Metal Worker’s Union, already backs the move, and earlier this year, Berlin labour minister Cansel Kiziltepe promoted a four-day week initiative for the city’s public administrative staff, saying: “We have to make young people a good offer if we are going to make administrative jobs attractive to them. Lots of young people and, first and foremost, parents with children would like to have a better work-life balance. We should consider these wishes.”

Indeed, who hasn’t desired a better work-life balance? But digital connection and distance working during Covid has cracked open a seam of social momentum that makes it more possible to first conceive of and, secondly, confidently vocalise a desire to change the accepted conventions of the working week.

The proposals in Germany have received political opposition, in particular from supporters of Germany’s Free Democrats Party (FDP). An article published by broadcaster Deutsche Welle summarised polling on the issue. “In general, those who supported the idea cited the results of trials in other European countries, which showed a reduction of stress levels and an increase in productivity. Those against were of the opinion that businesses could face financial strain and that the work needing to be done could not necessarily be accomplished if there were fewer hours to complete it.”

Should the German study mirror the results of similar moves in the UK and others, naysayers can stop fretting for the health of the corporation. The four-day week has been shown to boost productivity by granting workers a healthier life/work balance, ultimately reducing sick days, stress and burnout. As the Cambridge study reported: “Some 71 per cent of employees self-reported lower levels of ‘burnout’, and 39 per cent said they were less stressed, compared to the start of the trial. Researchers found a 65 per cent reduction in sick days, and a 57 per cent fall in the number of staff leaving participating companies, compared to the same period the previous year.”

Recent headlines have fretted about a culture of ‘sick days’ in UK offices. While stress is pinpointed as a leading cause, the four-day week is rarely mentioned as a solution. British society has made big advancements in understanding mental health; less so, what to do to boost it.

Scepticism about the four-day week may be rooted in a convention of presenteeism at odds with the growing body of evidence supporting it. Even in the creative industries there can be resistance to flexible working. Many a micro-manager across Britain takes the overseeing of their underlings literally, fearful that by letting workers out of sight, they will lose control over the petty domain of cubicle desks.

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But good luck getting blue-sky thinking out of drones who spend all the daylight hours of winter under strip lighting, which does little for idea-generation, or soliciting outside-of-the-box solutions from workers who feel penned in.

Forget the gruel. Workers are hoping for enough free time on this Earth to do everything that keeps a human running. Please sir, may we have time to do life admin, go to medical appointments, get hair cut, and properly switch off from work on leisure time? Please sir, not only the mental equilibrium, physical health, happiness and well-being of your workers, but your own productivity and bottom line depend on it!

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