Picture of workers in the office

Picture of workers in the office

The four-day week – a part of future Welsh working life?

Published 09/05/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

Many of us have seen changes to how we work over the last few years, from the rise of remote and hybrid working to increased automation and AI. One of the most hotly-debated suggestions for further change is a shift to a four-day working week.

Earlier this year, the Senedd’s Petitions Committee (with the exception of one Member) recommended that the Welsh Government should support a targeted four-day week pilot. It concluded that should not result in workers losing pay, and would be implemented most effectively in certain parts of the devolved public sector. The Senedd will debate the Committee’s report on 10 May.

What key issues need to be considered in assessing the merits of a four-day week?

Our previous article on this topic looks at the arguments for and against a four-day week. Advocates of a four-day week argue that it would have a wide range of benefits. The then CEO of 4 Day Week Global, Joe O’Connor told the Petitions Committee that:

…reduced work time can lead to improved worker well-being, reduced burnout, reduced stress, and it’s something that can be really transformative in terms of work-life balance for employees when it comes to being able to spend more time with family, in the community, learning new hobbies, new skills and so on.

However, the Committee also heard about a range of challenges in moving to a four-day week. There is widespread agreement around the difficulties of implementing a four-day week in some sectors, such as health, social care, education and hospitality. Shavanah Taj from the Wales TUC suggested that there may be more immediate priorities to address in these sectors, and that targeting pilots at the right sectors is particularly important.

There is consensus on both sides of the argument that changes to the status quo are needed, particularly in relation to reducing overwork and increasing the availability of flexible working. However, there are different views on how best to achieve them.

Professor Abigail Marks from Newcastle University argues that “if people can't manage their work in a five-day week because of overwork, then they're not going to manage it in a four-day week”. While the think-tank Autonomy agrees that organisational change and leadership are needed to address overwork, it argues they need to come with a shorter working week.

Proponents of a four-day week supported a flexible approach to a shorter working week. Mark Hooper, who brought the petition to the Senedd, stated that when he introduced a four-day week at IndyCube, some people would work five shorter days while others would take one day off every week. In contrast, Cheney Hamilton from Find Your Flex, a flexible working organisation, believes a four-day week is a “one-size fits all solution”, and that greater flexibility and inclusivity is required to meet people’s needs.

What are the latest developments beyond Wales?

Initially, individual firms trialled a four-day week in New Zealand and Japan, while a six-hour day was trialled in Sweden and public sector organisations in Iceland reduced their working week. More recently, 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit organisation that campaigns for a four-day week, has established a number of pilots in the UK and internationally.

4 Day Week Global ran a six-month trial in the UK with 61 employers between June and December 2022. Two Welsh employers took part in this pilot – Merthyr Valley Homes and Comcen, an IT company from Swansea. The evaluation of the pilot by Autonomy found that:

  • Of the 61 companies, 56 decided to continue with a four-day week following the pilot, and 18 of these opted to make this a permanent change;
  • There were benefits to employee wellbeing, with 39% of employees reporting feeling less stressed, and 71% having reduced levels of burnout at the end of the trial; and
  • Employees reported it was easier to balance work with family and social commitments.

In the public sector, South Cambridgeshire District Council started trialling a four-day week for their desk-based staff in January, the first local authority in the UK to do so. A report on the findings of the trial recommends that the trial for desk-based staff is extended until March 2024 to assess the impact on staff recruitment and retention, and that a three-month trial for facilities management staff is approved.

The Council said that performance across key metrics and customer satisfaction had been maintained through the trial period, and that scores in a staff health and wellbeing survey had improved considerably since the start of the trial.

In Spain, the government is currently accepting applications from small and medium-sized businesses to take part in a four-day week trial that will last for at least two years. In this trial, at least 25-30% of a firm’s employees will work at least 10% fewer hours on their full salary, and the Spanish Government will partially compensate employers and cover costs of designing new work schemes.

The Scottish Government has committed to a £10 million fund to allow companies to pilot a four-day week, although this has not yet started. It also intends to deliver a four-day week pilot in the public sector.

Could Wales build on these developments?

Those who support a four-day pilot in Wales have largely called for one to be developed in the devolved public sector.

In a report by Autonomy, commissioned by the Future Generations Commissioner, this approach is supported as the best fit with the Welsh Government’s devolved powers, due to the relatively high proportion of workers employed in the public sector in Wales. Similarly, Shavanah Taj stated that:

…running a four-day week pilot in the devolved public sector is going to be a really good opportunity for us to learn more about what we could achieve for workers in Wales, as long as this is done in consultation with the recognised unions, and takes into account some of the agreements that already exist around condensed working hours.

Joe O’Connor also said that a Welsh trial could explore how a four-day week connects to other Wales-wide policies to address challenges such as gender equality, sustainability, recruitment and employee well-being. This would build on existing trials, which tend to focus on individual employees and companies.

The Committee concluded that, to build on the private sector trials being held in the UK and internationally, the Welsh Government should develop a pilot for shorter working hours in the devolved public sector. The pilot should aim for productivity to be at least maintained, and should not lead to workers losing pay. In developing a pilot, the Welsh Government and social partners would need to address issues such as flexibility, potential unintended consequences such as overwork, and set out plans to address practical challenges.

Will the Welsh Government support a pilot in Wales?

We’ll have to wait and see. It wants the Workforce Partnership Council (WPC), where the Welsh Government works with devolved public sector employers and trade unions on workforce matters, to look at this issue in more detail. The Welsh Government intends that a working group will report to the WPC in November 2023, and it will make a decision on whether to support a pilot after this.

You can watch the Plenary debate on Senedd TV.

Article by Gareth Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament