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Is a four-day working week right for your business?

Earlier in the year, we highlighted changes in the working week as one of the occupational health trends to look out for in 2019.

But businesses are bound to have questions when it comes to implementing something that will fundamentally change the way that people work within an organisation.

Will the move to a four-day working week really improve the health and wellbeing of employers?

Can it help to ease stress in the workplace by giving staff more flexibility?  

Or is it more likely to have a negative effect on productivity?

We thought we’d take a closer look at the pros and cons of moving to a four-day working week.

Who wants a four-day week?

The UK’s official labour market surveys suggest many of us want fewer hours at work, presumably driven by a desire for a healthier “work-life balance”.

This was backed up by the TUC. At their annual conference in 2018, they called on the government to introduce a four-day working week where people could work less but get paid the same.

On paper, this might seem counter-intuitive but they claim that the onset of Artificial intelligence, robotics and automation could provide the UK with a £200bn economic boost in the next decade.

Automation and the four-day week

The move to automation and the so-called “rise of the machines” is generally reported as having the potential to negatively affect employment.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published new research on the impact of automation on the English labour market. It found that 1.5 million jobs are at high-risk of automation.

While many remain pessimistic about technology improving people’s working lives, some perceive it as an opportunity for creating more satisfying work for employees.

Automation presents clear profit gains for businesses. The TUC is keen to ensure that these gains are seen by everyone within a business, rather than just business owners and shareholders.

The time saved when automating processes could either be shared into other areas or, as some suggest, be an argument for implementing shorter working weeks.

Who is embracing a shorter working week?

Some businesses have already introduced a four-day working week, including the 9,000 members of the IG Metall union in Germany and, closer to home, a UK-based medical communications agency.

They introduced a trial four-day week in 2018 to potentially improve the well-being, recruitment and retention of staff. So far, their CEO believes that it has improved the mental health and work-life balance of staff.

An article in The Independent looked at other businesses that had introduced the concept.

In 2014, a London-based data design agency established a four-day working week with two goals; to lead happier lives but also to be more productive. They found that productivity over the four days actually increased.

A New Zealand financial firm recently revealed the results of one of the biggest trials yet of the four-day working week. It revealed no fall in output, reduced stress levels, increased staff engagement and a 20% rise in productivity.

The four-day week and productivity

All of these successful examples back up a 2014 study for the Institute for Labour Economics which found that productivity drops after the 35th hour of weekly work.

It’s also worth noting that the links between long working hours and elevated staff absence rates are well established.

However, for every success, you can probably find an example where the four-day week didn’t work. In some cases, these were in service sectors that, at least for the moment, are too reliant on regular face-to-face interaction, such as healthcare or teaching. Here, reductions in the working week can cause serious issues.

Ian Brinkley, Chief Economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), has suggested there is no "particularly strong evidence" that reducing working time automatically improves productivity.

With marginal financial benefits, businesses will need to decide what emphasis they place on the more personal benefits that staff might experience.

Can a four-day week work?

This is the big question.

As with most debates, the sheer diversity of jobs and workers means that you can’t provide a definitive answer that will suit everyone.

So the question becomes; how do we give those who would prefer a four-day week more freedom to choose it while protecting the interests of those who don’t?

One solution is to introduce the choice into an organisation’s policies.

UK think tank, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) produced a briefing document examining ways of achieving a shorter working week in the UK.

They suggested a gradual implementation with a focus on trade unions leading the way.

Is four days the answer?

As the concept of flexible working becomes more acceptable, if not expected, the rigidity of a four-day week may actually be its undoing.

In some sectors, such as healthcare, education and retail, it’s unlikely to work logistically and maintain levels of service.

Perhaps the solution is to join many of the small businesses in the UK running a trial four-day week to see if it works for their business.

However long your working week is if you’d like to find out how occupational health strategies can support campaigns that improve the wellbeing of your staff, get in touch with the team at Fusion today.

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Categories: EmployeesHealth & WellbeingOccupational Health

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