The recent UK experiment assessing the impact of a 4-day work week trialled for six months by over 60 UK organisations, has reportedly produced largely positive results. Over 90% of the organisations plan to continue with this structural change in work hours, although most will continue to a 12-month trial and then re-evaluate the costs and benefits.
The 4-day work week has also been trialled by organisations in other countries, including within the US, Australia and New Zealand. The key principle of the 4-day work week is no reduction in actual workload. Instead of working ‘smarter’ by reducing non-essential work (e.g., formal meetings) and informal occurrences (e.g., corridor conversations), aims to produce at least the same work productivity as a 5-day work week. Some UK organisations in this trial reported increased productivity by their workers, although this was only assessed in the short-term of course.
Importantly, for some organisations in this UK trial, the experiment was unsuccessful and was abandoned. Recent staff shortages have already intensified workloads for many employees, so increasing work intensification even further, even with the lure of a 3-day weekend, was just too difficult for some organisations to achieve. The issue of equality of this work hours structure for workers across different sectors of an organisation was also difficult for some to achieve. So, management and administrative workers were generally able to adapt to a four-day week more easily than could public-facing or operational workers, for example. Plus, organisations already under financial pressure post-COVID-19, had scarce financial capital available to hire more workers to cover the ‘fifth’ working day. So even with a staggered day off (e.g., having Wednesdays and Fridays as the nominated days off for different groups of staff), there were still insufficient workers available on these days to complete the core operating business.
The concept of a shorter working week is not new. Both 3-day and 4-day working weeks have been trialled, with varying success over the last few decades, including for example, with healthcare workers and police officers. What is evident from all these trials, including the recent UK one, is repeating the core workplace wellbeing principles which organisational health psychology has been relaying to employers since work-related ‘technostress’ was first recognised in the 1980s. These wellbeing principles have been significantly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, to the extent that ‘work-life balance’ is now an admirable aim that most workers can strive for, rather than being primarily focused on new employed parents balancing intensive childcare demands.
These principles focus on:
So, these work wellbeing principles inform our understanding of what decent, respectable work looks like, and the structures we can utilise to now achieve respectable working environments for ourselves. The COVID-19 pandemic has served to heighten this awareness and has encouraged many workers to recognise that work isn’t actually the most important component of our lives. Whether you work 3, 4, or 5 days a week, having enough work to do (but not too much), which is suitably challenging and meaningful (but not impossible), and allows sufficient time for your important non-work activities (families, relationships, hobbies) is ultimately the key to achieving work wellbeing.
Professor Paula Brough is the Director of the Centre for Work, Organisation & Wellbeing at Griffith University. Paula is formerly Professor of Organisational Psychology at Griffith University. Her research focuses on occupational stress, coping, the psychological health of high-risk workers (e.g., emergency service workers), work-life balance, and the effective measurement of psychological constructs.