The five-day standard working week has been the norm in the UK since the first half of the last century. However, there have recently been calls for this to be reduced to improve workforce wellbeing, increase productivity, and benefit the environment.
The Senedd’s Petitions Committee will start looking into this issue on 27 June. It will consider a petition it has received from Mark Hooper, which is calling for the Welsh Government to support trials of a four-day week in Wales.
What could a four-day working week look like?
A key part of the campaign for a four-day week is that working hours are reduced, but pay isn’t. 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit organisation that campaigns for a four-day week, would like to see a ‘100-80-100’ model. This involves workers receiving 100% of current pay, working 80% of working hours and businesses seeing 100% productivity.
There are also examples where workers have moved to a four-day week, but while continuing to work the same amount of hours as previously. For example, Belgium has set out plans to give workers employed by businesses with more than 20 employees the right to ask to work their regular working hours in four days.
What are the arguments for and against moving to a four-day week?
Proponents of a four-day working week have argued that it would bring the following benefits:
- 4 Day Week Global states that there are wellbeing benefits for workers from working a four-day week, including better work-life balance; improved physical and mental health; and happier employees with higher job satisfaction.
- 4 Day Week Global also cites evidence from Japan and New Zealand that a four-day week leads to improved productivity across different countries and sectors. The Trades Union Congress states that technological advances will lead to productivity increases that will allow workers to work fewer hours.
- The think tank Autonomy says that there are “strong indications” that reducing the working week can help reduce air pollution and lower the carbon footprint by reducing commuting levels and changing behaviour to low-carbon activities.
- The Women’s Budget Group has commented that a shorter working week could contribute to greater gender equality, with men taking on more responsibility for unpaid care and housework.
However, concerns have been raised about potential negative impacts of a four-day week, and the challenges these would pose:
- The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has said “rigid approaches” such as a four-day week are not the right approach when “flexible working is becoming more important than ever”.
- Academics from the Fraser of Allander Institute suggest some sectors may not be able to match their current productivity within a four-day week, such as health, education and personal services such as hairdressers. For these sectors, reduced working hours may lead to reduced profits or require greater public funding.
- Professor Abigail Marks has suggested there are some sectors of the economy, such as emergency services and hospitality, which may say that the nature of their work does not allow for a four-day week.
- The Wellcome Trust considered implementing a four-day week, but decided not to as it was “too operationally complex to implement”. It found that it was difficult to reconcile the needs of its different teams, who work in distinct working patterns.
What does the Welsh Government think about a four-day week?
In December 2021, the First Minister commented on four-day week developments in Iceland and Scotland, saying the Welsh Government will “continue to look at the experience that others are getting” and “bring that information back to Wales to see what possibilities there are for us”.
More recently, the Minister for Economy acknowledged the work of Autonomy and the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales on the four-day week. He suggested that the Welsh Government “remain actively interested in this area of policy formulation”, going on to say:
…if there are businesses that want to trial a four-day working week, we would be interested in having a properly constructive conversation about how that would fit into the work we're already doing, whether we could support them, and how then we take on board the learning that comes from those, to see whether it could be applied more generally, whether in public services or, indeed, the wider economy.
What do other organisations across Wales think?
The Future Generations Commissioner and Autonomy published a report in February calling for a shorter working week to be trialled in Wales. It would like to see:
- A shorter working week to be trialled in the devolved public sector;
- Public sector procurement strategies to be used to encourage reduced working time in the private sector; and
- Empowerment of trade unions to allow them to negotiate shorter working hours.
The report also sets out the views of a range of Welsh organisations who were involved in its development, including employers, trade unions, and third sector organisations.
However, CBI Wales has said that, while a four-day week might work for some organisations, it isn’t practical for others. It suggests it could “overload businesses” with further changes on top of hybrid and home working and is unsure whether reducing working hours will lead to increased productivity..
What pilot schemes are operating in Wales and beyond?
4 Day Week Global has set up a number of pilots across the world to trial a four-day week. One of these will run for six months in the UK, and started earlier this month. There are 70 employers taking part across the UK (including Merthyr Valley Homes), with a total of 3,300 workers moving to a four-day week.
4 Day Week Global has also established a pilot programme in Ireland, which is operating for six months from February 2022. As part of the pilot, the Irish Government is funding research on the economic, social and environmental impacts of a four-day week, and will consider the impacts on employers taking part in the pilot.
The Scottish Government has also committed to developing a four-day week pilot, including a commitment to provide £10 million in funding to support businesses to trial a four-day week.
Perhaps the most well-known adoption of a shorter working week has been in Iceland. The Icelandic Government and Reykjavik City Council undertook separate trials between 2015 and 2019 where workers moved from a 40 hour week to a 35-36 hour one for the same pay. Two organisations who advocate a shorter working week, the UK think-tank Autonomy and the Icelandic organisation Alda, have analysed the impacts of these pilots.
Since the trials took place, 86% of Icelandic workers are either employed on contracts with shorter working hours for the same pay, or on contracts that give them the right to be paid the same to work shorter hours. While those working standard hours saw relatively small reductions in hours, public sector shift workers such as nurses saw a larger reduction in the number of hours they are expected to work.
Over the coming weeks, the Petitions Committee will hear from stakeholders with a range of viewpoints on the issue before making recommendations to the Welsh Government. You can watch the evidence sessions on Senedd TV.