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The UK’s four-day working week trial: what have studies in other countries found?

Better mental health, increased productivity, reduced carbon emissions: the arguments in favour are legion

Ed Cunningham
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Ed Cunningham
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Every so often, the idea of a four-day working week pops up like a tantalising, unrealisable dream. The idea is simple: you get paid for a five days but only work for four. In theory, you’re less overworked and so it boosts your productivity and general wellbeing. But it’s also been touted as a solution to unemployment, workplace gender inequality – and even the climate crisis.

For many of us, a four-day grind has long seemed a little far-fetched; something for people in other, more progressive (and let’s face it, probably Scandinavian) countries. But the pilot of a four-day working week in the UK has brought things much closer to home. And it got us thinking… what’s the history of the shorter working week? And what have previous trials in other countries found?

In the UK at least, a reduced working week brings back memories of the miners’ strikes and fuel shortages of the 1970s. Back then the three-day week was enforced by the government and wasn’t on full pay – marking the start of an era of untold misery for countless families across the country. Needless to say, a repeat of that kind of suffering certainly isn’t the motivation of current four-day-week campaigners.

Following the success of trade unions in reducing weekly work days from six to five in the early 1900s, the four-day working week movement picked up pace in the 1970s. It became much more mainstream in the 2000s, with a series of trials across several different organisations, companies and governments.

In 2018 New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian trialled six four-day weeks, as part of a study run by University of Auckland Business School and Auckland University of Technology. The research showed that it was a resounding success. The pilot reduced workplace costs, improved work-life balance, reduced stress levels and, crucially, didn’t reduce revenue. Perpetual Guardian then made the scheme permanent.

British organisations like the Wellcome Trust and Labour Party trialled four-day weeks in 2018 and 2019, while Microsoft conducted a similar scheme in Japan in 2019. While Wellcome eventually dropped the scheme, deciding it was ‘too complex’ to put into practice, Microsoft Japan’s study produced greater sales per employee and significantly reduced costs. It’s thought that the Microsoft trial had an enormous influence on the Japanese government’s 2021 recommendation that companies offer their employees a four-day week to improve work-life balance.

Politically, the four-day working week has been promoted by NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Finnish leader Sanna Marin. It was also a manifesto pledge for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party campaign in 2019 – and was supported by economist Robert Skidelsky. Last year, as countries and companies all over the world faced pressure to accommodate healthier and more flexible working patterns, the Spanish government announced it would trial the four-day working week on a nationwide level.

So, who’s closest to achieving an across-the-board four-day working week? Well, Iceland has almost certainly got the closest so far. A whopping 85 percent of Icelanders currently have the option to work only four days, with researchers calling the scheme an ‘overwhelming success’ thanks to huge increases in wellbeing and productivity. 

And it isn’t just Iceland. Around the world, there are plenty of companies that have, at least in part, indicated a shift towards a four-day working week. The likes of Microsoft, Unilever, Target and Morrisons are all either trialling or partly implementing the change. Trials are taking place all over the world, from the USA and Canada to Ireland, Spain and Australia.

Which all sounds pretty promising, doesn’t it? The current UK trial is organised by the London-based Four-Day Week Campaign with the help of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Employees at 30 companies will work four-day weeks for six months. There’s still a long way to go, but here’s hoping that, one day, a permanent three-day weekend is more than just a distant dream. 

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