The four-day week is gaining interest and new supporters as an effective response to economic and employment problems caused by Covid-19. Working less to improve the economy and job prospects may not seem obvious solution. But it works because, rather than making workers redundant, firms are able to retain their workforce through sharing out available work by reducing the working week for all employees.
Governments across the world are setting out roadmaps for economic recovery and increasingly these feature trials of shorter working weeks. The proposal isn’t new, but its popularity is rapidly spreading and it is winning new converts. Several case studies illustrate how adopting shorter working-times can be useful in times of economic recession. To lessen the impacts from both WWI and WWII and prevent widespread lay-offs, Germany adopted the “Kurzarbeit” scheme, whereby the Government subsidised part of the working-week for struggling industries to keep people in jobs. Today, there are many reasons for shortening the working week and support for the option is growing.
In most industrialised countries and for much of the last century the trend has been towards shorter working weeks. Many forget that the ‘weekend’ is a relatively recent creation, and the result of working people organising themselves and campaigning for a better balance between work and life. Academics and campaigners have long praised the benefits of working-time reduction for gender equality, well-being, environmental and economic reasons. But during economic downturns, work-time reductions provide the added benefit of a fair and straightforward solution to mass redundancies.
The Governments of New Zealand, Scotland and Spain are testing the benefits of shorter working hours for their citizens. Some firms have already taken matters into their own hands and launched trials in their industries. These have been met with significant levels of support from employees. But with support also growing in political circles and business sectors, it’s clear that the move to shorter working weeks could be done in different ways bringing very different outcomes to those involved. Many advocates in favour of reducing work hours stress that these changes should not come at the expense of lower wages for workers. Instead, they argue people should keep their wages unchanged on the basis that working fewer hours tends to increase productivity. It also brings wider social and economic benefits by lowering the costs of work in terms of impacts on health, and increasing the opportunities for civic engagement, and vital transition work. But how exactly should governments pursue the path to shorter-working time? Could transitionary schemes responding to the pandemic lead to permanent shifts in working patterns across our societies? And how would this shift help meet our climate targets?
The First Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, was first to express her support for a four-day working week and flexible working options to boost the country’s struggling tourist sector and address concerns about work-life balance. Scotland quickly followed suit when the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) passed a motion to review working practices and the possible adoption of a four-day week at its annual party conference last December. Since then, a coalition of campaigners, unions, businesses and think tanks have pressed the party to follow through with their announcement and introduce a subsidy to support a four-day week without a loss in pay. The letter addressed to the Scottish Government states that “2020 saw growing popularity and momentum for a four-day (32 hour) working week with no loss of pay and we know from history that shorter working hours are the best approach for spreading existing work more equally across the economy in times of economic recession”. The introduction of a four-day working week was also supported by the first Scottish Citizen’s Assembly in 2019.
But Spain is the country closest to making the shorter week a reality for its citizens. Earlier in 2021, the small progressive party Más País floated the idea of a four-day week trial. The proposal was approved by the Finance minister, who set out a budget of 50 million euros to support companies to test a 32-hour working week based on no loss of pay. The Spanish Government has now given the green light to the trial which could start as early as autumn 2021 and include up to 200 companies, totalling over 3,000-6,000 workers.
Last August, German workers’ union IG Metall, which is a forerunner on the issue of work-time reduction, proposed a shorter working week for its 2.3 million members as a solution to both the pandemic-driven economic crisis and the likely results of automation in the auto industry. Similarly, French carmaker Renault temporarily put 13,000 of its staff onto a four-day week, again with no loss of pay, in order to cut costs – while public resources met the rest of the bill.
Public investment in shorter working week schemes in times of economic downturn have been trialled across the world. Much of the Netherlands shifted to a shorter working week following its introduction in the public sector in response to recession in the early 1990s. The change took root, proving lastingly popular once experienced.
Recent examples following the 2008 financial crash include a trial by the Governor of Utah in the United States who put 18,000 of its workforce on a four-day week. Germany’s Kurzarbeit scheme ranks among the oldest and most ambitious shorter working schemes carried out at the national level. Its very first occurrence dates as far back as 1910 when the country was facing a crisis in potassium salt production and workers received “short-time work welfare” from the German empire. In 1924, a quarter of Germans were added to the Kurzarbeit programme and the policy was reintroduced after the Second World-War and during the crises of 1967, 1975 and 1983 respectively. The way the scheme works is that the Government effectively pays a portion of the hours employees do not work.
Throughout the pandemic, workers initially received 60% of their wages for the hours not worked, later increasing up to 80%. Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Czech Republic, Italy and Japan soon followed suit with similar versions of shorter working time subsidies. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, progressive think tank Autonomy urged the UK Government to roll out a similar shorter working time subsidy scheme whereby firms would cut down their staff working hours to 80% while still paying their wages in full – the remaining 20% being subsidised by the Government. Over the five-year period, the State subsidy would then be reduced to 4% until it is phased out altogether. Firms would remain profitable because of hikes in productivity. Evidence from European countries shows that those working long hours like the UK or Greece are much less productive than their counterparts who work fewer hours on average.
Regarding feasibility, Autonomy argued that firms with more than 50 employees would be able to afford a move to a four-day week without suffering, after carrying out a “test stress” on 50,000 businesses in the UK. According to their research, public sector workers would be best placed to pioneer a shift to a ‘no loss of pay’ 32-hour working week which could help create as many as half a million jobs in the process. These changes would not only help tackle unemployment, but could also help stave off the UK’s widespread burnout and mental health crisis fuelled and exacerbated by the nation’s long working day culture. In 2018, 17.5 million days were lost to mental health in the UK, 44% of which were down to stress, depression or anxiety according to ONS data. One recent study from the 4 Day Week Campaign and leading think tanks shows an increase by 49% in mental health distress reported by employees in comparison to 2017-2019 levels. Women are disproportionately effected given that they are most likely to shoulder unpaid childcare duties and other care work alongside their paid work. From a gender equality point of view, reducing working time alongside the provision of adequate childcare support, and closing the gender pay gap, could positively contribute towards dispelling traditional gender roles and reducing gender inequality at work.
Several studies have also reviewed the environmental benefits of working less. By spending less time at work, shorter working weeks directly reduce the amount of commuting and energy use. At the macro level, it is estimated that a 25% reduction in working time could contribute to as much as a 30% reduction in our ecological footprint. Recent research from the 4 Day Week Campaign and environmental charity Platform quantified that if the UK were to move to a four-day week with no loss of pay, it would shrink the country’s carbon footprint by 23% – 127 million tonnes per year – by 2025. This would be the equivalent of taking the entire UK private car fleet off the roads.
The other positive side effect of working less is that people might use the free time on less environmentally-damaging but more labour intensive activities such as cooking from scratch, growing one’s food, cycling to work, neighbourhood transition initiatives and learning new skills for greater self reliance, and the care, repair and sharing of possessions. There is a danger however that these benefits might only be short-lived if people decide to spend their allocated free time on carbon-intensive leisure activities. For this reason, a socially fair and rapid phasing out of carbon-intensive industries remains essential, as well as addressing the structural and cultural barriers that prevent people from living more sustainably.
It might be no coincidence that both the governments of New Zealand and Spain, one led by a working mother and the other facing high levels of unemployment, are ahead of the game when it comes to favouring such a progressive economic policy. But in terms of historical precedents, workers’ unions were the ones at the forefront of campaigns for shorter working hours in the late 19th Century, and who won the right to an 8-hour working day. In recent years, a renewed interest in the question of working time has spread throughout the Europe across political parties, businesses and unions, who are calling for or trialling shorter working arrangements. Decades ago the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by a 15 hour working week would be common as society benefited from the efficiencies of mechanisation. That didn’t happen as productivity increases fed through into high consumption instead, leaving people still working longer hours. But some argue that economies can reap even more of the rewards of shortening working hours by going below a four day week to a 21 hour week, closer to Keynes’ original vision.
At the end of 2020, a coalition of politicians, union officials and researchers wrote to the Governments of the UK, Germany, Spain and other nations pressing them to adopt a four-day working week as part of the economic recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic. Signatories include, among others, Katja Kipping, the chair of Die Linke party in Germany; Íñigo Errejón, an MP in Spain’s Más País party; Green party MP Caroline Lucas; and the general secretary of the UK’s Unite union, which represents 1.4 million working people. The letter states that “[t]hroughout history, shorter working hours have been used during times of crisis and economic recession as a way of sharing work more equally across the economy between the unemployed and the over-employed”. The group also stresses the positive environmental benefits that result from shorter working hours, such as reduced energy and transport use, both of which could help tackle the climate crisis.
Ahead of the 2019 British elections, the Labour Party put forward a manifesto that highlighted the path to a 32-hour working week. Those plans were criticised by conservative media and politicians but polling showed they were backed by popular opinion. Since the departure of the UK from the European Union, the Labour Party has been arguing to maintain the EU working time directive, protecting European citizens right to work no more than a 48-hour working week. Four-day week advocates argue that the Labour party should go further with a positive vision for work and a 32-hour working week. Joe Ryle, of the four-day week campaign, argues that “[t]he pandemic has also given many people the time to rethink what they hold to be most important, and – to be frank – few desire a simple return to pre-Covid “normality”, in the world of work at least. (…) Taking both this and the growing popularity for a four-day working week into consideration, Labour has a significant opportunity to shift the terms of political debate on working hours.
While some governments have been leading the way by investing in shorter-working time initiatives, the number of businesses who are already working shorter hours is growing by the day. These shifts occurred prior to the onset of the pandemic as a way to improve staff morale, while boosting workers’ productivity. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand firm active in estate planning, set the tone when it shifted its 250 staff to a four-day week with no loss of pay in March and April 2018.
Data collected before and after the trial suggested an increase in employees’ work-life balance commitments and an overall increase in life satisfaction and a decrease in stress levels. Now the firm has permanently adopted a four-day week and is helping others in their trials of a shorter working week. Perpetual Guardian’s CEO Andrew Barness is also advocating for the four-day week to serve as a pivotal policy in the fight against climate breakdown. Throughout the pandemic, big brand names like Unilever in New Zealand, Microsoft, the soap-company Dove or even ice-cream manufacturer Magnum have outlined plans for trialling shorter working weeks. These “high-profile endorsements” are pushing working-time reduction higher up the political agenda. Smaller companies are also taking the lead in making the four-day week a reality. According to David Cann, founder and owner of Target Publishing, a magazine group, the company’s trial of a shorter working week was so successful that employees were reinstated back to full pay. Awin, a Berlin-based tech company, experienced a similar success after a few teething issues, such as working out when staff will take their days off so as to spread them out evenly among the team.
Research from the University of Reading found that almost two thirds (62%) of UK businesses (over a sample of 500 firms) running four-day week trials experienced an increase in staff productivity that helped them make thousands of pounds in savings – approximately 2% of their total turnover.
Government support will necessarily be needed for more firms to embark on shorter working week arrangements. For this purpose, advocates are calling the UK Government to adopt a sector-by-sector approach in order to account for the varying impacts on different branches of the economy.
Some opposition is likely to remain to shifting to four-day week with no loss of pay. Back in 2019, ahead of the British Government elections, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), for instance, opposed such a move using the argument that it would harm workers’ living standards. But this is in contradiction to a recent polling showing that 79% of businesses in the UK support a four-day week. With more firms expected to pilot shorter-working weeks across coming months, and strong public support across the board, governments might soon be faced with the reality that working less will become a new normal that they should actively support.