Across the United Kingdom (UK), a hundred companies are permanently moving over to a four-day working week with no loss of pay. These companies, which employ around 3,000 people, operate in a diverse array of industries and sectors, from marketing, information technology, financial services, and environmental campaigning, even to a fish-and-chip shop. Business surveys suggest that a third of UK businesses think a four-day week will become the working norm this decade.

Parallel trends can be seen in the USA, Ireland, and Australia where researchers from the advocacy group 4 Day Week Global found in a pilot study that work-life balance, satisfaction, physical and mental health all improved, while absenteeism and the rate of resignations fell. Productivity and revenue also increased, with some companies reporting a revenue boost of 8%. But most importantly, not a single firm that participated in the pilot is returning to a five-day week. Once the benefits of a shorter working week were realised, there was no going back.

It is not just small and medium sized businesses that are embracing a four-day week, some of the biggest and most recognisable household names in the business world are also realising the benefits. In Japan, a nation often associated with a rigid and often gruelling work culture, the electronics giant Panasonic has introduced an optional 4 day week for all employees. Microsoft’s Japan offices have also experimented with a shorter working week, which saw productivity rise by 40%. The multinational consumer goods giant, Unilever, has implemented four-day week trials in its offices around the world, with many schemes extended due to staff being happier and more engaged.

The Japanese government used its 2021 annual economy policy guidelines to set out a plan to encourage employers in Japan to move towards a four day working week – and they are not the only national government looking to embrace a shorter working week. Spain introduced a three-year nationwide programme for a voluntary 32-hour working week, and both New Zealand and Finland have floated the idea. The Belgian government has allowed workers the right to demand a four day working week from their employers. British MPs and union representatives have urged the government to give workers the legal right to request a four-day working week with no loss of pay, citing the evidence that it can boost productivity and staff wellbeing.

Credit: Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic from 2020-2022, multiple furlough and shorter working week schemes were experimented with out of necessity. What is interesting about these examples is that their success comes as many countries move beyond the pandemic to find a new ‘economic normal.’ From the perspective of rapid transitions, what is interesting is that breaking the ‘work and spend’ cycle is key to raising well-being while reducing over-consumption – a key condition for change in the Global North in particular. It would continue a long historical trend towards a shorter working week which, due to its benefits, many argue should not stop at being lowered to four days, but aim for 21 hours.

Amid global economic uncertainty and the prospect of stagnating growth and productivity, the four-day week could become a favoured way to navigate the current instability, while cutting emissions, reducing pollution, boosting productivity, and improving the physical and mental wellbeing of workers. And, with momentum quickly building behind this potentially transformative idea, 2023 might be the year in which the four day week becomes a working reality for thousands of people. 

Key lessons for rapid transition:

  1. Shifting cultures around work that include people reassessing their values and what matters to them is creating new demands to put health and well-being ahead of short term economic gains for employers and governments.
  2. Capturing benefits for employers and employees is possible through a shorter working week in terms of quality of life, quality of work and a better balance between economy and biosphere.
  3. Evidence-based policy is coming to the fore and helping to overcome resistance to debating the length of the working week. The increasing demonstrable success of initiatives and pilot schemes is helping overcome insecurities about change to implement four-day working weeks around the world.

The big picture

When it comes to rapid transition, a four-day week has it all: it can lead to immediate cuts in emissions and pollution, improve mental and physical wellbeing, while freeing up time for more low impact and localised activities outside the demands of the labour market. For employers, the introduction of a four-day week can give them a competitive edge in attracting top talent and enhancing staff wellbeing, without sacrificing productivity. After the collective experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, society’s approach to work, leisure, and wellbeing has been altered, perhaps permanently. The growing popularity of the four-day week is reflective of this, and shows how transformative ideas can rapidly become contagious.

The five day working week is increasingly out of touch with contemporary life. In many countries the 40-hour working week was introduced by governments in the 1930s to quell the demands that arose from the labour movement due to poor working conditions, low pay, and the ripples that spread across the globe as a result of the Russian revolution. But now, after huge strides in digital technologies that have enabled shifts in how and where people work, the five day working week is beginning to look past its sell-by date.

Work, in its current form, is making us unwell. Globally, approximately 488 million people are working long hours, which is responsible for an estimated 745,194 annual deaths. A survey of over 10,000 office-based workers across seven countries found that approximately 70% had experienced burnout over the past year. Strikingly, 40% of those surveyed believed that burnout was an essential part of success. Other surveys have found similar workplace trends, with Deloitte’s research across four countries finding that 43% of workers felt exhausted always or often; 42% were stressed; 35% felt overwhelmed; and 23% reported experiencing bouts of depression. These issues inevitably bleed over into employees personal lives, impacting relationships and friendships, as well as an individual’s sense of self worth. It’s clear that the demands of modern work can exacerbate other social issues, such as depression and loneliness.

Credit: Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Work, where long and arduous hours are the norm, is making society more unequal. Long hours disproportionately benefit male workers, thereby widening the gender pay gap and other forms of structural prejudice within the workplace. There is also some evidence to suggest that longer working hours may increase social inequality as firms reimburse high-hours executives whose work is believed to be too valuable and specific to delegate effectively. Perhaps this is why the shorter working week hasn’t fully taken hold yet, despite the myriad of benefits: it is those executives at the top of companies that benefit the most from a longer working week, so they are resistant to the idea of shortening it for all.

Alongside the social comes the environmental. The 40-hour week is a major source of emissions and pollution. Researchers exploring the climate benefit of a shorter working week found that if the UK was to adopt a four day working week by 2025 it would lead to a 21% reduction in emissions. This would be comparable to taking every private car in the UK off the road. A US Study found that a four day working week would see workers in the USA driving 560 million fewer miles a week. A shorter working week will not only cut emissions, but also reduce air pollution which kills seven million people worldwide every year.

These facts are convincing in themselves, but after the collective experience of the global pandemic, the benefits of a shorter working week have gained a stronger pull. COVID-19 fundamentally altered the world of work and challenged outdated conceptions around the necessity of being in the office and the benefits of the traditional 9 to 5 work routine. For many, the pandemic led a series of epiphanies around the centrality of work in our lives, and offered a glimpse of alternative ways to create meaning and purpose for ourselves outside of work.

Context and background

For a shorter working week to take hold as an idea, it needed to be planted in fertile soil. In this case, it is a growing disaffection with the world of work that has provided the nutrients for a four-day week to begin germinating. The role of work, and its centrality within our lives, has been challenged before at times of economic crisis, such as during the 2007-2008 banking collapse, and faced a reckoning during the global pandemic, where companies and staff alike discovered new and effective ways of working, but staff also woke up to the world outside work.

Credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Despite looming recessions in many of the biggest labour markets in the world, job dissatisfaction and voluntary resignations have reached all-time highs in places like the USA, UK, and France, as part of the so-called Great Resignation. As a result, the labour market is tightening further and companies need to think differently about how they attract and retain staff, amid a cost of living crisis and widespread union action. Here, a four-day week could be a game changer.

Shortening the working week, with no loss of pay, could help firms attract top talent in a saturated labour market. Employee surveys consistently find that the overwhelming majority of staff would like to see a four-day week implemented – even before the pandemic. A 2019 survey in the USA found that two-thirds of workers would prefer a four-day week. In 2021, 80% of British workers said they would prefer a four-day working week.

Given the current economic malaise, a four-day week could provide a boost to labour markets, local economies, and productivity. Some commentators believe that a shorter working week could stimulate investment in skills, training, and research by limiting the supply of less productive, cheaper work. There is also reason to believe that a shorter working week would help boost local economies, as people’s leisure time will increase without a drop in incomes. A four-day week also cuts businesses’ operational costs, with Microsoft Japan cutting their electricity bill by almost a quarter through adopting a shorter working week. With sky-high energy prices, stuttering productivity, and growing dissatisfaction within the world of work, a four-day week could provide some respite.

Enabling conditions

Shifting cultures around work

The world of work has not returned to normal post-pandemic – despite governments and business leaders’ best efforts. While the desire to work less and live more was palpable before COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, the collective experience has undoubtedly accelerated it.

Work cultures are anything but rigid – as Japan’s embrace of a shorter working week makes evident. Employees are actively seeking out employers that can provide flexible working conditions and shorter working weeks and providing this to potential employees can give firms an edge that has been blunted by spiralling costs and sluggish productivity. 

Credit: Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Although the phenomenon of ‘quiet quitting’ and the Great Resignation may be over exaggerated, there is clearly something afoot within the world of work. Expectations are shifting and new demands are emerging, which could usher in a new age of work and – by extension – more sustainable patterns of consumption.

Capturing benefits for employers and employees

There are clear benefits to both employers and employees of adopting a shorter working week. And these benefits will quickly become expectations: and employers will need to maintain them in order to attract and retain staff, especially in highly competitive sectors such as technology or financial services. For employers, the prospect of boosting productivity, revenues, and staff retention amid such uncertain economic conditions is sure to turn a few heads.

But there are other benefits, such as having happier, healthier and more engaged workers that feel valued and well-rested. These benefits can accrue at the society-level, through reduced burdens of public health and mental health services, as well as through increased community work and voluntary efforts. A shorter working week could, in many ways, stimulate the type of changes society needs to see in order to build more resilient communities in the face of climate breakdown.

Evidence-based policy coming to the fore

It is one thing having a growing pile of supportive evidence in favour or implementing a shorter working week, and it is another to have governments drawing on that evidence-base to inform public policy. All around the world, governments are using a shorter working week to navigate and address multiple economic and social issues.

In Japan, for instance, one of the reasons a shorter working week is being prescribed by the government is that it can help improve social care among Japan’s ageing population and increase supply within Japan’s shrinking labour force. For businesses in the UK, a four-day working week has allowed them to bolster productivity and revenues in the face of challenging circumstances. Whether the problems are economic, social, or environmental, a shorter working week can deliver on all fronts.