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Four day working week

Is a four day week working smart?


The Scottish government announced plans to trial a four day working week, but is this a step in the right direction? Wellbeing expert Lianne Weaver explores the work/life balance in a post-Covid corporate world.

14th Sep 2021
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With organisations bringing employees back into the office, we are finding ourselves tentatively stepping into a new working world. The pandemic has made our offices not only look different, but shift the language being used around them too. We are hearing lots of talk of hybrid working and even a four-day working week. 

The concept of working 20% less may sound appealing. No one would argue that it would be lovely to work less hours, earn the same pay and have the constant flexibility of working how and where we would like.

But just how practical is this concept?

Many people are concerned about the impact on clients, productivity and the practicality of cutting the working week:

“Surely it just means that employees in white collar jobs are doing the equivalent of four days’ work but being paid for five?” argued AccountingWEB member Paul Crowley.

“People at my firm, a client’s and at least two other practices I know have all been sacked for scamming the systems and not working,” agreed another member.

Research findings

Cutting our working hours has been debated since long before the pandemic. With stress levels on the rise, it is acknowledged that work pressures and our inability to switch off are having a detrimental effect on our health.

A report found that life expectancy in the UK has stalled for the first time in over 100 years. The growing weight of evidence convinced the Scottish government to consider reforming working practices and potentially introducing a four-day working week. 

A research study by Henley Business School found that companies that adopted a four-day week reported over three quarters of staff (78%) were happier, less stressed (70%) and took fewer days off ill (62%).

Companies that adopted a four-day week across the world found that productivity and happiness increase, while stress levels decrease:

  • Microsoft (Japan) saw an overall boost in productivity of 40%
  • Perpetual Guardian (New Zealand) saw a 20% increase in productivity and a 27% decrease in stress
  • Deloitte and KPMG both offer a flexible 40 hour week as standard, allowing staff to do four 10 hour days if they choose. 

The downsides

The idea of cramming our current heavy and stressful workloads into a four day week may seem to have the opposite impact of what the scheme hopes to achieve.

We are accustomed to working a standard 9-5 day. With the increase in technology use over the course of the pandemic, there is also an expectation from ourselves, managers and clients that we should be constantly available. Losing a working day could therefore doubtfully appear to hold any promise of ease.

There are definitely industries in which a four day week may be impractical, but the considerable benefits certainly make it worth thinking about for businesses that can adopt this practice.

The benefits

The desire to be ever present and contactable has left people feeling stressed and burnt-out. The mental health crisis is at an all time high, increasing demand not only on the NHS, but also on organisations.

It may seem counterintuitive shortening our working week woul increase productivity, as it implies that employees cannot be giving their all to their job if they become more productive by working less.

However, being present at work and working hard is not always the same as being productive and working smart. If we have a culture of pushing ourselves until we have nothing left to give, then it stands to reason that even if we are working our hardest, we will not be operating to our highest. 

Our brain tires fairly quickly. It can actually only perform at an optimal level for a maximum of 90 minutes, after which its cognitive functioning starts to decline and we become mentally slower, our memory is poorer, our reaction times decrease and we are less able to retain information.

If this happens after just 90 minutes of concentration, what is our cognitive capability at the end of an exhausting week? There are countless benefits of giving our brains regular recovery breaks to mitigate this impact.

Recovery breaks

Recovery breaks are short periods of rest that lower stress levels and enable us to feel refreshed and able to concentrate on work.

Research suggests two types of recovery breaks can help avoid burnout:

  1. Internal recovery: This is a mental break taken every 90 minutes for around three to five minutes - something that switches our brain into a different gear, such as having a walk, chatting to someone, doing some breathing or even playing a game on your phone.
  2. External recovery: This is a longer period of recovery taken at the end of a mentally draining period, such as the end of your working day. Ideally it lasts around one hour, where you do any activity that gets you into a flow state. This could be exercise, walking the dog, cooking, doing something creative or even playing on the Xbox. 

Companies that encourage staff to take regular recovery breaks have noticed some really positive findings:

  • 30% increase in focus
  • 50% increase in creative thinking
  • 46% increase in sense of health and wellbeing
  • When employees felt encouraged by their supervisor to take a break, they nearly doubled their likelihood of staying at the company.

People who reach clinical burnout are very poor at taking recovery breaks and so never get to switch off until they become exhausted.

A four day week may well be right for some employers and increase both employee wellbeing and productivity, but there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution.

Instead, it’s important to become more aware that however we do it, we need to balance our work life and manage our stress better. To this end, it leaves employers open to considering approaches which could not only achieve this but help the productivity of their organisation as well. 

Replies (8)

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By Paul Crowley
16th Sep 2021 21:26

Staff being paid for five days work but only working four days are happy with the change
I wonder how much such a study would cost given that the result was a given

But to avoid sounding unsympathetic I tend to space out my time. Give myself a break when completing a section of work

Work for most people is more than just work. It is social interaction
A good employer encourages social interaction with colleagues

Lots of employment does allow flexibility, which is probably more important than fixed hours
I do not take a lunch break. I spread it through the day
My staff can flex as much as they want and control of not taking the wotsit is down to the staff member's integrity
Often I and my partner are the only people in for the first half hour of designated opening times. Not an issue. We leave the phones on night service most of the time, and I answer the phone quicker than reception most of the time.

The example of offering 4 10 hour days is daft beyond reason
I was formerly a TA soldier teaching TA soldiers
The Army way is adequate breaks with no academic overload. Sticks with me now and keep that approach with staff

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By ourpetsheadsarefallingoff
17th Sep 2021 09:55

There's bound to be an immediate positive reaction from staff to getting an extra day off, but how long before it becomes the norm and motivation decreases back to current levels?

I think flexible hours and hybrid home-working, while still maintaining the general idea of a 37-40 hour week, is a surer way to improve morale and productivity long term, and one that's much less radical at this moment in time.

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By AndyC555
17th Sep 2021 12:12

"A report found that life expectancy in the UK has stalled for the first time in over 100 years. "

Damn. I was hoping that it would carry on increasing forever.

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Replying to AndyC555:
By Hugo Fair
20th Sep 2021 20:34

I really dislike quotes that (like the one you've extracted) don't bother to reference a named 'report' ... and then use emotive but meaningless words.
Saying 'life expectancy has stalled' doesn't mean anything. It's quite possible that it has stopped increasing, or more likely that the rate of increase has slowed or even stopped. These are all different statistics, but we're not told which one (or for where or when, or covering what size population)! But I liked your conclusion.

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20th Sep 2021 16:10


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paddle steamer
21st Sep 2021 09:54

Given we are apparently only going to be able to power workplaces for three days a week working four days seems excessive.

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By Paul Barclay
21st Sep 2021 10:01

The idea of a flexible approach to working (office and WFH), is really appealing but 4 days per week doesn't appear to work, certainly not where I am employed. Of course some employees will try to take advantage where they can which will inevitably ruin it for the majority - always the way!

However, on the other side of the coin I have had an interesting conversation with my employer who absolutely will not pay 5 days for 4 days work. I did ask him if he was willing therefore to pay the extra hours we work each week and for the phone calls I get while abroad on family holidays (not in the last 18 months), and unsurprisingly he didn't want to do that either. (The joys of being fairly close to retirement means that I can ask the difficult questions without worrying about my future career!)

Some employees will take advantage as will some employers

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By birdman
07th Oct 2021 23:44

Where "the business" is just you and your dog, or a small pack, it's more a case of "will clients accept that you are only available 4 days a week"?

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