1. Working hours

Interest in a four-day working week has grown over recent years and has been supported by the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). For example, the Labour Party made a commitment to reduce working hours in its 2019 general election manifesto, stating that “within a decade” they would “reduce average full-time weekly working hours to 32 across the economy, with no loss of pay, funded by productivity increases”. In addition, in a September 2018 speech marking the 150th anniversary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Frances O’Grady, then TUC general secretary and now Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway, outlined her belief that a four-day week could be achieved “in this century”.

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell also commissioned the economist, historian and biographer Lord Robert Skidelsky to write a report on how to reduce working hours. Lord Skidelsky’s 2019 report, ‘How to achieve shorter working hours’, outlined how working hours have been falling since the industrial revolution, but that the decline had slowed in recent decades. Historic data collated by the Bank of England illustrates this point (figure 1).

Figure 1. Average weekly hours of full time workers, 1856 to 2019

Figure 1: Average weekly hours of full time workers, 1856 to 2019

Lord Skidelsky noted that the general reduction in working hours was “made possible by productivity growth, and brought about by a combination of collective bargaining, voluntarism, and legislation”. However, since the 1980s, these factors driving and enabling the reduction of working time have weakened. Productivity growth has slowed dramatically, collective bargaining has declined and real wage growth has stalled, putting voluntary hour reduction beyond the reach of many workers. Therefore, Lord Skidelsky suggested that “policy interventions explicitly designed to secure reduced working time will be more necessary now than before” if working hours are to resume their historic decline.

2. The four-day week campaign and trial

The UK-based campaign for a four-day working week is led by the 4 Day Week campaign group, which describes itself as an independent, non-partisan group “campaigning across the UK for a four-day, 32 hour working week with no loss of pay for workers”.

According to 4 Day Week, moving the pattern of work towards this model would have some broad benefits, summarised below:

  • Workers would achieve a better work-life balance. It would allow more time for “often neglected” parts of non-work life, such as rest, leisure and ‘life admin’, ultimately allowing workers to “live happier and more fulfilled lives”. Childcare and commuting costs would be reduced.
  • Employers would achieve “higher performance and profits”. Employers would be able to “increase productivity and reduce costs” and “attract and retain high quality employees who are happier and less stressed and take fewer sick days”.
  • The economy, which “suffers simultaneously from overwork, unemployment and underemployment”, would be rebalanced. Domestic tourism would also increase as people take more short breaks in the UK.
  • Society, more broadly, would benefit from having a population with more time to focus on maintaining physical and mental health, as well as having more time to care for children and elderly and disabled people. A four-day week would allow for a more equal share of paid and unpaid work, including of “caring roles traditionally ascribed to women”.
  • The environment would benefit from individuals having more free time to make environmentally positive choices. The UK’s carbon footprint would also be reduced.

To test these potential benefits, the 4 Day Week UK campaign partnered with 4 Day Week Global, the think tank Autonomy and researchers from Cambridge University and Boston College in the US to produce the “world’s biggest trial of a four-day week to date”. The trial took place in the UK from June to December 2022, comprising 61 companies and around 2,900 workers.

The results of the trial were published in a February 2023 report, ‘The results are in: The UK’s four-day week pilot’. Key findings include the following:

  • 56 of the 61 participating companies (92%) are continuing with the four-day week, with 18 companies confirming it as a permanent change.
  • Companies’ revenues stayed broadly the same, rising by 1.4% on average over the six-month period. However, when compared to a similar period from previous years, organisations reported revenue increases of 35% on average, indicating “healthy growth during this period of working time reduction”.
  • The number of staff leaving participating companies decreased by 57% over the trial period, with sick days reducing by 65%.
  • 39% of employees reported being less stressed, with 71% having reduced levels of burnout at the end of the trial.
  • 54% of employees found it easier to balance work with household jobs, with 60% finding an increased ability to combine paid work with care responsibilities.

The report states that there were various ways in which productivity was increased to account for lost labour time. Examples included reforming the norms around meetings (“making them shorter, less frequent, and with clearer agendas and objectives”), automating aspects of work and adopting new project management software.

In terms of the structure of the four-day week, the report notes that employers “were not required to rigidly deploy one particular type of working time reduction or four-day week, so long as pay was maintained at 100% and employees had a ‘meaningful’ reduction in work time”. Rather than a ‘one size fits all’ concept:

[E]ach company designed a policy tailored to its particular industry, organisational challenges, departmental structures and work culture. A range of four-day weeks were therefore developed, from classic ‘Friday off’ models, to ‘staggered’, ‘decentralised’, ‘annualised’, and ‘conditional’ structures.

Dr David Frayne, research associate at Cambridge University, praised the method of the trial and said that he was encouraged by the results, which showed “the many ways companies were turning the four-day week from a dream into a realistic policy”. Charlotte Lockhart, 4 Day Week Global co-founder and managing director, said that the “overwhelmingly positive results” add to an “ever-growing evidence base in favour of reduced-hour, output-focused working”, noting that the trial results mirror outcomes from earlier trials in Ireland and the US.

3. Responses to the trial

In an article for Tribune, Jack Kellam and Mariam Salman welcomed the trial results, arguing that the four-day week was now “popular, well-evidenced, and good for workers”. They noted that the prioritisation of pay over working hours in pay disputes was understandable during a cost of living crisis but, with the evidence “in place”, they said that “now’s the time for progressive policymakers and trade unions to fight to shape a four-day week future” and “lock-in better conditions for thousands of workers”.

In contrast, Tim Worstall, senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, challenged the idea that the four-day week should be a policy objective. He noted that companies taking part in the trial tended to adopt more efficient working practices to ensure a four-day week was feasible but argued that such practices did not depend on there being a four-day week. He suggested that “attention to removing inefficiencies […] can be done without the reduction in labour hours”. It is “entirely fine” for people to organise working hours as they wish, but the “liberal solution”, according to Worstall, would be to leave individuals to decide on the “split between more leisure and more stuff”, rather than implement new laws with respect to working time.

Writing in the Conversation, Anthony Veal, adjunct professor at the University of Technology Sydney business school, suggested that some questions remained about the trial results. For example, he questioned whether the results are representative given that substantial portions of employees and employers did not complete the final round evaluations upon which the final trial results rely. He also suggested that the extent to which firms genuinely increased their productivity is not clear, as it was only revenue that was measured, rather than output, and revenues may have been supported by a generalised inflation during the trial period.

Responding to a written parliamentary question about the trial on 1 March 2023, Kevin Hollinrake, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Business and Trade, said the government “does not believe there can be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to work arrangements”. He said the government’s policy “leaves space for employers and employees to agree suitable arrangements for their particular circumstances”.

Cover image by Israel Andrade on Unsplash.