4-day working week: Could it increase stress?

Hannah Patchett | 12th February 2020

It’s a Monday, the train was delayed, the weather has decided to have a tantrum. You walk into the office and find yourself muttering “I really hate Mondays..” whilst writing yourself a phone note to claim through the Delay Repay train service. You pass some colleagues in the office, and although you are only half awake, feel you should be polite to ask how their weekend was, “My weekend was great thank you, shame it went so quickly though!”, “Yeah, where did it go? I still haven’t caught up with everything at home!” Fast forward to Friday and you overhear colleagues willing the day to go quicker, “Imagine not coming in on Fridays and starting the weekend early!”

Full-time work in the UK is commonly based on a 5-day working week but policymakers are toying with the idea of whether a 4-day working week could be the answer to the productivity gap. The Labour Party and some businesses, including large household names such as Microsoft, have had success with changes to the traditional norm and fully support a 4-day working week. 

A 4-day working week under the microscope

The thought of having an extra day in the week sounds fantastic on a superficial level. However, from a practical stance, would working 4 day weeks actually make people happier? Could it have an adverse effect and actually cause more stress? 

According to a YouGov survey, “63 per cent of Britons support a four-day full-time working week.” Whilst it is in high demand, have you considered the possible ramifications?  For example, if there was a reduction of working hours that lead to a reduction in remuneration for workers, how would they feel about that? Would a reduction in hours affect the number of workers required to complete the same task? If workers are working over 4 longer days, would they be able to work those additional hours at the same productivity rate? Would it negatively affect workers’ moods and their work-life balance?  

Let’s take a closer look…

Charlotte Lockhart, the CEO of 4 Day Week Global  said: “Business needs to understand that the way we are working now is getting in the way of their ability to be productive.” But is she right?

Autonomy, a think tank on the 4-day working week, suggests there are five significant reasons to support the movement:

  1. Low productivity increases. The productivity argument is based on the notion that if people have less time to complete work they would become more efficient with it. Also, as workers would be working less, they would also feel ‘fresher’. 
  2. Gender inequality & segregation reduces. Opportunities could be opened for women who have been marginalised from careers that were previously unable to offer flexibility. It could allow parents to participate in the weekly school schedule. For some, it could mean one less day of expensive childcare, which could tip the balance of whether working is economically viable. 
  3. Reduction of low paid and precarious work. By working fewer hours, theoretically, wages would increase. If widespread, a 4-day working week would cause a reform in the type of work on offer. 
  4. Rather than putting jobs at risk, automation would help to upskill workers. With technology developing, some jobs can find themselves at risk of being made redundant. This argument centres on the idea that rather than trying to fight automation and job loss, they could work together. The technology could decrease the amount of workload, which would complement the reduced hours of a  4-day working week.
  5. Commuting reduction. If the amount of commuting is reduced, it would inevitably be better for the environment. as fewer people would be travelling. Commuting is typically seen as a stressful part of the day, so its reduction is likely to increase happiness. For people with longer commutes, not only would they get the day off but they would also have the additional time that would be spent commuting. 

Too good to be true? 

As shown above, a 4 day working could have positive impacts on workers. However, there are strong opposing arguments focusing around the themes of happiness, engagement and reward.

If someone is unable to get their workload complete in 4 days, their stress levels will likely increase. If people struggle to fulfil their duties then they may suffer from pressure, worry or guilt. In this scenario people’s days off could be spent worrying, or in the worse case doing the work as if it was a normal working day anyway. It may lead to people staying beyond their normal working hours and working later into the evening in order to keep up with deadlines. Would people really be happier with the loss of their hours in the evening? Are four (possibly) more stressful days be worth the exchange for one full day off?

Would people be happier with less money? Commonly, pay is suggested as a key reason for unhappiness at work, so would this lower wage cause people to become disengaged? People would have more leisure time but less money to spend during this time.

If workers did not want to take a wage decrease on a 4-day working week, they could participate in overtime. However, if workers have to rely on non-contractual overtime it could increase stress from financial concerns and possible burn-out. 
There are also significant considerations from an implementation point of view…

Tricky implementation 

Another drawback of a 4-day working week is the actual implementation. Like with any other major change in businesses, reducing the number of working days would provide challenges. Not only would there be challenges initially, but there could also be challenges from the knock-on effects that may have not originally been taken into consideration. It would be naive to think the structure of the working week could change suddenly or quickly. 

The impact could be phenomenal on business planning and operations but it may not necessarily lead to the massive boost in happiness that you hoped for. What happens if a 4-day working week is implemented but it does not have the desired impact? What happens if workers realise it was not the lifestyle change they thought it would be?  To change back would be just as hard as the implementation was. Not only because of worker’s contractual shifts but also from the cultural shifts. 

Operational challenges 

  • If one area of the business has a typical 5-day working week and this is reduced to 4, what happens to those who typically work longer shifts over 3 days? Would their hours be changed to be in line with others? In the example of public sector work where bands are used to ensure fairness and clarity over remuneration, this could provide a headache for HR! Not only within setting policies but having the admin capacity to cope too.
  • Should the employer dictate the day off? If not, could there be difficulty in speaking to colleagues and the handover process of work? Could there be a limited impact if people are unable to choose their day to suit their desired lifestyle? 
  • Automation could improve and develop operations but for those in customer-facing roles, the hours they need to cover would not reduce. Certain industries, such as care would find they would need to increase the number of staff. Could your business model adapt to this? If businesses’ have to increase the number of staff and the number of people who need training in that job, the costs to cover this must come from somewhere…
  • Workers such as doctors, dentists, nurses would not be able to see as many people. Those in sales would have fewer hours to attract/meet customers.
  • People may not be drawn to careers in professions when other departments/industries could provide additional benefits and flexibility. Those working in these industries may find themselves under more pressure, especially if there were recruitment difficulties.

It’s clear that for some businesses/industries it would be harder to operate a blanket policy, which could then cause problems on fairness and overall workplace happiness. 

Implementation risks and how one problem could then open up a can of worms raises the question of whether having a middle ground would be better? Options such as using working from home and increased working flexibility options would allow workers to feel like they are able to participate in areas of their personal life that may coincide with standard working hours. If flexible working is not an option, other methods could be used, for example, leaving early on a Friday.

Not a one-size-fits-all approach

Clearly moving to a 4-day working week requires a lot of thought. The most commonly quoted argument for reasons on why a 4-day working week would be successful is the productivity argument. Whilst productivity and happiness are undoubtedly intertwined, they are different. Productivity could increase but it does not necessarily correlate to a happier workforce. Also, there are no guarantees that it would increase.

The implementation of the 4-day working week has been successful for some e.g. Microsoft. Typical success stories are revolutionary companies who are willing to embrace the full onboarding of the change. Each business needs to carefully consider whether a 4-day working week would actually increase happiness for their workforce or create problems. Would it actually be feasible with the time, effort and resources needed to implement the initiative successfully? It is worth noting that there is still limited evidence of the benefits, it is more based on theoretical assumptions.

When considering the case scenario at the beginning, surely the solution is to change the negative energy and create a thriving culture during the working week. This could be more effective than shortening the length of time people work in a toxic culture! If people were happy at work would they be so quick to jump at the thought of an extra day off? 

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