A major trial of a four-day week has begun – what are the pros and cons?

Is it time the UK switched to a four-day working week? (Getty Images)
Is it time the UK switched to a four-day working week? (Getty Images)

A major trial of a four-day week with no loss of pay has begun in the UK, in the largest pilot scheme to take place anywhere in the world.

Firms taking part will give 100% of workers’ pay for 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain at least 100% productivity.

More than 3,000 workers at 70 companies have today started a four-day week with no loss of pay in an exciting trial lasting six months.

The trial is being organised by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with think-tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.

Companies taking part provide products and services across a number of different sectors ranging from education to financial services; hospitality to digital marketing and online retail.

Of course one of the main perceived benefits of a four-day week is an improvement of mental wellbeing, thanks in part to a better work/life balance.

Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy, says working fewer hours a week has many mental health benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety, and better sleep.

"Our relationships are better because we have more time to spend with our friends, families and loved ones," she says. "We also have more time and energy to follow our interests and to nurture our creativity, which gives our lives meaning and purpose."

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The new trial follows the previously largest trial of a four-day working week in Iceland, which was declared an "overwhelming success", and prompted calls to test out a similar working practice in the UK.

The trial, which took place between 2015 and 2019 and saw more than 1% of Iceland’s working population test out the pilot programme, cut the working week to 35-36 hours with no reduction in overall pay.

Joint analysis by think tanks, Autonomy in the UK and the Association for Sustainable Democracy (Alda) in Iceland, found that the trials boosted productivity and wellbeing and are already leading to permanent changes.

Workers reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout, and said their health and work-life balance had improved. They also reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores.

Commenting on the new UK trial Joe O’Connor, chief executive of 4 Day Week Global, said: “The UK is at the crest of a wave of global momentum behind the four-day week.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, more and more companies are recognising that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge.

“The impact of the ‘great resignation’ is now proving that workers from a diverse range of industries can produce better outcomes while working shorter and smarter.”

Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, and lead researcher on the new pilot, said: “We’ll be analysing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel and many other aspects of life.

“The four-day week is generally considered to be a triple dividend policy – helping employees, companies, and the climate. Our research efforts will be digging into all of this.”

Watch: Six-month trial of a four-day working week to be launched in the UK

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What are the benefits of a four-day working week?

While there has been some doubt cast about the measurable success of the Icelandic trial, experts believe moving to a more flexible work model could mean British workers are able to enjoy a better work-life balance leading to improved wellbeing and mental health.

According to Craig Jackson, professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University, many studies show that workforces do not get enough rest and leisure time when working hours (plus commuting) expand, indicating that work life-balance is more likely if we increase the rest days workers have.

"Working fewer days allows workers to focus their efforts into compressed working periods and have more 'down-time'," he explains.

"We talk lots about work-life balance but in my 20 years' experience as a workplace psychologist, I rarely see any balance in those who work five days a week, but plenty in those who work fewer days."

(Getty Images)
Workers said they felt less tired. (Getty Images)

Professor Jackson says Victorian society used to base culture around eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours sleep, but this may no longer suit modern life.

"Due to increased technology and on-demand working, unpaid overtime, and the insidious creep of people taking work home with them, working hours have been increasing since the 1970s," he explains.

But a four-day week could be a major step in reversing that trend and allowing workers to have more time to themselves and their families.

As well as improving the health and wellbeing of employees, a four-day week could have positive impacts on productivity.

Though you might think productivity would fall as a result of working fewer hours, in fact the reverse may be true.

Findings from research carried out on the four-day week by Henley Business School, discovered that of the UK businesses who have already adopted a four-day working week, nearly two-thirds (64%) reported improvements in staff productivity.

"Human productivity is not linear and we cannot work consistently over longer time periods without some flagging, fatigue or even reduction in performance quality," explains Professor Jackson.

"In the UK we used to have half day closing (typically on Wednesday afternoons), which enabled staff to get a break from work mid-week and happened without defect to commerce or productivity."

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A four-day week could enable some employees to spend more time with their families. (Getty Images)
A four-day week could enable some employees to spend more time with their families. (Getty Images)

The chance to enjoy more down-time could also lead to employees making better decisions at work and less absenteeism.

"The opportunity to slow down the pace of life with a longer weekend has personal and organisational benefit," explains Tracey Moggeridge, mindfulness practitioner at workplace psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola.

"Fewer rates of absenteeism, better decision-making, and a happier and healthier workforce".

Getting a hit of serotonin during workers' increased time off can have wide-reaching impacts on workers' health which could lead to them needing fewer days off.

"Serotonin, the chemical we need to support our immune system among a host of other things, is also believed to help regulate mood, social behaviour, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function," Moggeridge says.

"Seratonin also comes from gentle exercise – and a four-day week would give us all more time for walking, yoga, t'ai chi, or tugging out the weeds in the garden."

Low angle view of young woman doing a training session of obedience with a goldendoodle in a public park. Pet and owner bonding time.
More time for walkies... (Getty Images)

Possible cons of a four-day working week

While the potential benefits of a four-day week have been widely discussed, there are some possible drawbacks to consider, including the fact that businesses don't all work in the same way.

Not all companies are able to shut for a weekday, particularly if customers expect people to be available five days a week, with certain industries requiring a 24/7 presence.

While the plan is for staff to only work 80% of the working week, if they are unable to meet the commitment of 100% productivity, they may be expected to make up any shortfall in their own time.

In some cases, employees may end up working from home on their day off anyway to ensure they get their work done.

Another consideration is the fact that some workers may feel under pressure to meet targets and finish projects in the four allocated working days, which could impact the quality of their work.

Additionally, the change in working hours across four days instead of five could impact some employees childcare arrangements.

Experts believe a four day week could benefit employees wellbeing. (Getty Images)
Experts believe a four-day week could benefit employees' wellbeing. (Getty Images)

Of course, the success of four-day working may depend on trust.

“Without trust, a four-day week is unlikely to do anything for a team’s wellbeing, just as working from home only benefits mental health when employees are protected from the chaos of pointless Zoom calls, endless Slack chatter and splurging working hours," explains Tariq Rauf, founder and CEO of digital work hub Qatalog.

“One of the great lessons of the pandemic is the knowledge workers do best when they have the freedom to arrange their workloads and schedules in line with their own needs. Without being constantly checked in on by their superiors, they have the space for renewed creativity, focus and calm. And this in turn boosts the company’s bottom line.

“The four-day week isn’t a magic bullet in itself – it’s the culture of trust that comes with it that really makes the difference.”

Additional reporting PA.