Should we all be working less?

Should we all be working less?

The results of the world’s largest trial of a 4-day-week suggest yes. The trial, which was conducted under the guidance of academics and think-tank Autonomy, saw 61 UK-based companies take part in a 6-month workplace experiment in which over 2,900 employees worked four days instead of five, for the same salary. And this did not mean cramming the hours of five days into four, it meant a genuinely shorter working week: 80% of time for 100% of pay.

The trial was a major success: 56 (92%) of the companies that participated are extending the four-day week, with 18 of them committing to a permanent shift. For employees, the reduction in working time gave rise to reduced stress (39%) and lower levels of burnout (71%), as well as better work life balance (54%), increased ability to combine paid work with caring responsibilities (60%) and social life (62%). The benefits were not simply one-sided though. The revenue of companies that took part remained the same, rising marginally by 1.4% on average, and turnover decreased, with the number of employees leaving declining by nearly 60%. A full summary of the results can be found here.

The trial could pave the way for one of the biggest transformations in our working lives since the five-day week became rule of thumb more than a century ago. But momentum was building even before the results were released. In a Global Web Index survey conducted across 10 countries in October 2022, 69% expressed interest in the idea, with 67% of the opinion that a 4-day week would be successful if implemented. Brazil and the USA emerged as the most enthusiastic supporters of the reduction in the number of working days, with major European countries, France, and Germany, less assured of the proposition.

But why exactly are people interested in a 4-day week? The leading reason was the idea, as proven by the UK-based trial, that it will provide a better work life balance, with three quarters (73%) of those interested citing this. This was followed by greater flexibility to take care of other tasks (59%) and lower work stress (41%). Only in Japan was lower work stress higher than increased flexibility with over half (56%) citing the former as an appeal, compared to just over a quarter (27%) for the latter. This makes sense considering the especially intense corporate culture that Japanese employees are subject to, with the term Karoshi emerging half a century ago to account for “death from overwork” and its subsidiary karōjisatsu describing people who die by suicide due to mental stress from the workplace.

The minority that expressed disinterest in a 4-day week cited it not being appropriate for their business / industry as the leading disadvantage (39%). Longer workday hours followed as second most popular assumed disadvantage (34%). This suggests that global campaigner’s still have work to do in terms of explaining the practicalities of the concept since – as noted above – the point isn’t to cram more hours into less days, but to achieve a meaningful reduction in work time. Perhaps if this was better understood globally, interest would be even higher than 69%.

Putting assumed disadvantages to one side, overall perceptions of success were strong. 65% of respondents across the 10 countries surveyed thought the 4-day week was likely to be a success if implemented, with Brazil (81%) and the USA (75%) once again emerging as the most ardent enthusiasts. Though European respondents – in France, Germany, and Italy – were relatively less assured, it was Japan that emerged as the real outlier here. Just one third (35%) agreed that the 4-day week would be successful. With Japanese Government urging companies to institute this shift since 2021, this presents an interesting example of bottom-up hesitation.

Ultimately, though, both the recent trial and the GWI survey make clear that a 3-day weekend is on the horizon. Who knows, your company could be next to take the plunge towards a more progressive work-life balance.