With many employers testing a four-day working week, Eugene Farrell argues that it is vital occupational health practitioners provide clarity on what is expected of employees when moving to compressed working, and explains why it won’t necessarily benefit wellbeing.
UK employers are taking part in the world’s biggest trial of a four-day working week with no loss of pay.
More space for work-life balance can be important for some staff, some of the time. But the four-day week in itself is not a panacea – and unlikely to mean any changes to the landscape for occupational health.
Rather than easing the strains from health and wellbeing issues and putting an end to burnout, the shift to a more output-focused work model may well mean more (and different) pressures and stresses.
Most importantly, a key element of the major UK trial is that employees have pledged to maintain 100% productivity: they have to squeeze more work into less time in order to earn their extra ‘day off’.
The principle of the four day week has been attracting a great deal of interest from governments internationally.
Pilots have gone ahead in Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Iceland previously ran a scheme where working hours were cut to 35-36 each week for 2,500 workers. An analysis of the outcomes showed how there had been rises in both productivity and wellbeing.
The rise of the four-day week also means an opportunity for employers to save costs and cut salaries in response to the pressures from high inflation rates. The Scottish Government is currently considering the offer of a four-day arrangement (with lower wages) to all its public sector workers.
The 4 Day Week Campaign website highlights the reasoning behind its work: “The UK works longer hours than most of Europe. It is not making us more productive. It is making us stressed, overworked and burnt out,” it argues.
“The four-day week challenges the current model of work and helps companies move away from simply measuring how long people are ‘at work’, to a sharper focus on the output being produced. 2022 will be the year that heralds in this bold new future of work,” it adds.
Six-month trial, with no loss of pay
The six-month project across the UK will see more than 3,300 employees at 70 companies work a four day week with no loss of pay.
Rather than easing the strains from health and wellbeing issues and putting an end to burnout, the shift to a more output-focused work model may well mean more (and different) pressures and stresses.”
The pilot is running until the end of this year among a variety of employers, ranging from a seaside fish-and-chip shop through to finance, construction, education and IT businesses.
The organiser, 4 Day Week Global, is leading the scheme alongside Cambridge and Oxford universities, Boston College and Autonomy.
Researchers are tracking the progress of participants in terms of their wellbeing (stress and burnout), productivity, changes in their environmental footprint (travel and energy use) and issues such as what happens to gender equality.
Past research backs up the value of shorter working hours to UK staff. A survey by Censuswide for ClickUp found that almost a third were “actively looking for a four-day week”, or have already agreed one with their employer.
Employees get more quality of life; employers have a way to shift to an output-focused deal, a means of improving productivity. This is the key to business interest.
As the CEO of 4 Day Week Global has put it: “More and more companies are recognising that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge.”
Impact of a four-day week on wellbeing
As occupational health practitioners will know however, shorter working hours and more time at home do not necessarily mean better health.
The Covid-19 experience in itself was a huge experiment in the impact of home working and more time for friends and family.
What became clear was how differently people reacted. For some, more free time was a golden opportunity; for others it only heightened their sense of loneliness and isolation; or created new strains in relationships and exposure to greater caring responsibilities. Any changes in long established routines can create problems.
The four-day week will certainly improve satisfaction levels for a proportion of the workforce, provide more of a release valve for pressures.
But it is very clear from how the trial is being run that employers expect to maintain – and believe they can increase – levels of productivity.
A healthy balance for employees happens when organisations understand the pressures, are willing to listen to individual concerns and be flexible in everyday ways; when there’s a culture of trust and support.”
As we all know, holidays can be a welcome relief, but they don’t mean anything has changed when we go back to our routines: there’s often only more stress and demands around catching up.
Occupational health and HR need to be clear about what offering shorter hours actually means in practice. Encouraging good mental health isn’t as simple as offering more flexibility, less formality in how we work, as we’ve seen from more people working from home.
A healthy balance for employees happens when organisations understand the pressures, are willing to listen to individual concerns and be flexible in everyday ways; when there’s a culture of trust and support.
OH needs to be involved in providing clarity on expectations. For example, whether employees are, in any way, expected to be accessible or do any form of work on their extra non-working day and in what circumstances.
They need to articulate what the squeeze on time and productivity actually feels like and means for staff. How can the impact be mitigated through better planning and communications between line managers and their reports?
They also need to be sure participants in any four-day week offering are thinking about the full range of implications and the support available from both line managers and services such as employee assistance programme. That it will be normal to be experiencing anxiety at the change, and normal to look for help and talk openly about resulting problems.
Four-day weeks may well become a significant part of the future of work for many. But in terms of wellbeing, they will be just be one factor in a complicated picture, one where listening and understanding individual situations – and how they are changing – will continue to be critical.