Almost 3,000 employees took part in the pilot, which was organized by the advocacy group, 4 Day Week Global, in collaboration with the research group, Autonomy, and researchers at Boston College and the University of Cambridge.
Participating companies could use various methods to “meaningfully” shorten their employees’ workweeks – from giving them one day off a week to reducing work days over the course of a year to an average of 32 hours per week – but they had to ensure so that the employees still received 100 percent of their salary.
At the end of the experiment, employees reported a number of benefits related to sleep, stress levels, personal lives and mental health, according to results published Tuesday. The companies’ revenues “remained largely the same” during the six-month trial period, but rose by 35 percent on average compared to a similar period from previous years. Redundancies decreased.
Of the 61 companies that took part in the trial, 56 said they would continue to implement four-day work weeks after the pilot ended, with 18 saying the shift would be permanent. Two companies are extending the trial. Only three companies did not plan to continue with any part of the four-day work week.
The results are likely to put the spotlight back on shorter work weeks as a possible solution to the high levels of employee burnout and the “Great Resignation” phenomenon exacerbated by the pandemic, amid a global movement calling on companies to ditch the office, 9-to-5, five-day working week, and adopt more flexible working practices instead.
The world’s largest four-day working week pilot has just been launched in the UK
Increased turnover, improved employee well-being
The findings from the British study build on the results of an earlier, smaller pilot published in November and also coordinated by 4 Day Week Global. This experiment, which involved around 30 companies and 1,000 employees in several countries, resulted in increased income, reduced absenteeism and redundancies and improved employee well-being. None of the participating firms planned to return to five-day work weeks after the pilot ended.
The 4 Day Week Global group is coordinating these pilot programs as part of its global campaign to encourage more firms to switch from the standard 40-hour work week to a 32-hour model for the same pay and benefits.
The UK pilot program involved twice as many companies and employees as the previous pilot program and is the largest of its kind. The benefits for participants extended beyond the office and into employees’ personal lives.
Those who participated were less likely to report that they felt they did not have enough time in the week to care for their children, grandchildren or older people in their lives. The time men spent looking after children increased by more than double that of women, pointing to positive effects of a shorter working week on gender equality – although there was no change in the proportion of housework men and women reported taking on.
A majority of the employees who experienced the four-day work week did not want to go back: at the end of the pilot, they were asked how much money they would have to receive from their next employer to go back to a five-day week. Almost a third said they would demand a 26 to 50 percent increase, and 8 percent said they wanted a 50 percent higher salary.
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A better work-life balance is why Michelle, a 49-year-old media executive who asked to be identified by her first name so she could speak candidly about her previous employment, insisted on a four-day work week when she applied to her current position. After working three- and then four-day weeks when she returned from maternity leave in 2015, she noticed a “strong” difference when she went back to five-day weeks working for another company during the pandemic.
“Suddenly it felt like my whole life was about work,” she says. She came “close to burnout”, and when her contract at that company expired, she was clear with potential employers that she wanted to work four days a week. In her current position, she has Fridays off and is paid 80 percent of what she would earn if she worked five days.
“It feels like I can breathe,” she said. “It feels like I’m not constantly falling behind on my family life and feeling guilty and like crushing all the jobs and errands and everything in two days.”
The extra time off is particularly useful for childcare, she says. She co-parents her 9-year-old son, who has autism. In her previous job, when she worked three or four-day weeks, the extra time meant I could pick him up from school, we could spend more time together, she says. – It makes a big difference for the parents.
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Although the four-day work week model has gained some momentum, it is still not standard practice globally, and much of the research on the policy is limited in size. Most of the companies that took part in the British trial were small – 66 per cent had 25 or fewer employees – and disposed to explore the concept of flexible working. Ninety percent of the participating employees were white, and 68 percent had at least an undergraduate degree.
Opponents of the four-day work week say that while the policy may benefit some workers, it is not feasible for many, including workers in key industries such as child care and health care, which already face widespread staff shortages. Some workers would rather work more and earn more. And some skeptics believe that employee productivity would eventually decline if the four-day workweek were made permanent.
Supporters of the policy emphasize that there is no one size fits all, and that the benefits of a shorter working week can reverberate throughout society, reducing healthcare costs and reducing emissions from daily commutes. Their ideas are becoming more mainstream. Several large trials with shorter working weeks are underway globally. In 2021, introduced rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) a bill that would reduce the standard work week from 40 to 32 hours and mandate overtime pay for work performed beyond that limit.
There is precedent for a large-scale change in the standard work week: As The Washington Post has previously noted, before the Great Depression, it was not uncommon for employees in the United States to work six-day weeks. The 40-hour work week was first codified into US law in 1938. The argument made by groups such as 4 Day Week Global is that “we’re about time for an update.”
Rachel Pannett contributed to this report.
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