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Could the 4-day week really work in the UK?

Dismal productivity growth has been one of the constants which has undermined the UK economy over the past decade. But, according to recent analysis by the TUC, it isn't caused by a lack of time spent at the office. On the contrary, ours is a labour force which is significantly overworked.

The TUC's figures revealed that the average full-time employee in Britain works 42 hours a week (excluding commute), which is the highest in the European Union, and roughly two hours more than a typical worker on the Continent. Yet our nation is the least productive of the 28, bar Italy. 

In Germany, full-time workers spend 1.8 hours less at work than their British counterparts, but are 14.6 per cent more productive. The gap is even more stark when compared to a country like Denmark (which has the shortest working hours in the EU), where workers do four hours less per week, but are 23.5 per cent more productive. 

The argument that less work, not more, is a solution to the UK's productivity problem has gathered steam in recent years, and has manifested itself most prominently in the form of a proposal for a four-day working week. But could such a revolutionary idea really take hold on these shores?

What the evidence tells us

Incidentally, the concept of a four-day week has already entered the political mainstream. In 2017, it was one of the pillars in the Green Party’s manifesto, while Labour has now commissioned research looking at the impact of a four-day week within the public sector.

A number of companies in the UK have taken the lead too, including Glasgow-based marketing firm Pursuit Marketing, whose 120 staff began trialling a four-day week in 2016 (with all employees remaining on full salary). Their operations director, Lorraine Gray, recently told the BBC that productivity has since increased to the tune of 30 per cent, while sickness leave is at record lows. And another, somewhat-unexpected benefit has been that the company hasn't needed to pay a penny to professional recruiters in three years, with rates of staff turnover at rock bottom, and would-be employees clamouring to work for them.

Looking further afield, there is a common trend where countries working fewer hours boast better rates of productivity than the UK. Yet the evidence isn't completely unanimous. For example, state-run nursing homes in Gothenburg, Sweden ran a trial of six-hour days, and, while productivity rates improved and the number of sick days taken was reduced, they saw a considerable rise in staff costs, as more workers had to be recruited to fulfil the rota. The experiment was eventually cut short as a result.

Indeed, this resonates with recent comments made by Asheem Singh, head of the Future Work Centre at the Royal Society of Arts. He observed that the four-day week could be relatively straightforward to implement in sectors such as marketing and finance, but not so in other industries like healthcare where "you have to turn up”. He believes the net result could be a two-tier labour force, whereby white-collar workers get a four-day week, while those who operate in the care sector, and other more-menial jobs, are left slugging away for five days. He therefore concludes that a four-day week would need to be imposed at national level.

So is the four-day week a non-starter?

It would be foolish to write off the idea just yet, and there are signs that it could gain broad support within our workforce. YouGov conducted a survey of more than 2,000 people (published in June, on behalf of jobs website Indeed), which found that 74 per cent of Brits believe they could finish a normal week’s worth of work in four days, without any detriment to the quality of their output. This figure was even higher among millennials, at 79 per cent.

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution until the 1980s, the average working week reduced steadily each decade. However, it has since plateaued. Had the expected trend continued over the past thirty years, we'd be putting in about 33 hours per week on average. Instead, three-quarters of us spend just under 40 hours at work.

But it isn't just the weight of history which suggests that something has to give. Current estimates put the number of days lost to work-related stress at 15 million per year in the UK. According to Management Consultancy firm Lane4, 34 per cent of UK employees are more stressed now than they were in 2017. Among those respondents, some 30 per cent believe a four-day week would alleviate their stress levels.

Aside from the aforementioned benefits such as reduced sick days and improved productivity, there are two other factors which might tip the balance too. Firstly, reduced working hours are likely to correlate with a reduction in CO2 emissions. With an ever-increasing focus on climate change, a four-day week could thus become a necessity in the future. And then there is the progress being made within automation. Many experts believe Artificial Intelligence will yield greater income growth per capita, coupled with a reduced need for man hours. It may be that a four-day week dovetails perfectly with the rise of the machines, producing a better work-life balance for many of us.

Of course, none of the above is to suggest that a sea change is imminent. To get it off the ground, it would require a combination of big corporates and courageous politicians turning the tide on norms which are so ingrained. It is also true that we are not yet at a stage where the evidence is compelling enough for widespread adoption among UK firms. It may be that a better solution, in many cases, is simply to equip employees with the tools to deal with stress. Pressure is not a bad thing of itself. But it is essential that corporate cultures strike a balance between the demands it places on its workers, and the levels of support on offer.

Ultimately though, the 40-hour, five-day week is a man-made construct, and it's a gospel we shouldn't be afraid to question. We may not be there just yet. Nevertheless, one can't help but feel that its days as a cornerstone of society could be numbered. And that need not be a bad thing. 

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