How could a four-day working week boost UK business productivity?

Written by
Ewen Haldane

23 May 2019

23 May 2019 • by Ewen Haldane

The UK is one of the hardest-working countries in the world, when it comes to hours clocked up. The TUC estimates that 1.4 million people now do some work on every day of the week, with 3.3 million working 45 hours or longer. Yet, in terms of global productivity, we’re dragging our heels.

Workers in Germany, for example, work almost six hours per week less than their UK equivalents, yet are 36% more productive. Looking at 2017 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data, the most productive country in the world (GDP per hour worked) is Luxembourg, with a leisurely working week of just 29 hours.

Something isn’t adding up. Perhaps the correlation isn’t really that surprising. As Nic Marks, CEO of Friday, a business focusing on measuring and improving employee happiness, explains, “miserable people do miserable work. And long-hours cultures breed misery”. This, in turn, harms productivity. Research has demonstrated the link between longer hours and decreasing productivity. A recent US study of construction workers, found a decrease in productivity as the number of hours worked per week increased. In fact, according to the OECD data, productivity declines in a fairly straight line as more hours are worked.

On the upside, a 2018 study by Oxford University, of 5,000 workers in BT call centres over six months, revealed that shifting from a five- to a four-day work week led to an increased number of calls made, happier customers, more sales, fewer absences and an increased sense of wellbeing. 

It’s not just productivity that suffers from longer hours. In 2015 more than half a million UK workers experienced work-related stress, leading to 12.5 million lost working days at a cost of up to £43bn to the economy. The main cause of these mental strains? Excess work.

In the US, it’s estimated that job stress as a result of overwork causes 120,000 deaths a year. The Japanese even have a word for death through overwork – karoshi. Their government is planning to introduce a ‘shining Mondays’ scheme, where employees are allowed to start work after lunch one Monday a month to try to inject a little more balance.

According to a recent study, 61% of UK employees have resorted to taking a ‘duvet day’ simply to recuperate due to work-related exhaustion. As the psychologist and author of Office Politics, Oliver James, comments, employees who feel under high pressure will find ways of putting the brakes on, even if only surreptitiously.

He explains: “It’s no surprise that levels of mental illness in the UK are around twice as high as they are on the continent. When employers just want to wring the most out of their workforce for as little as possible in return, can staff really be blamed for putting up a facade of effort while doing as little actual work as possible?”

So if it’s not making businesses wealthier, and it’s harming wellbeing, why are organisations working people to the point of exhaustion? 

Acknowledging this anomaly, a few small agencies are making attempts to reinvent the work week. Tash Walker, CEO of London market research agency The Mix, introduced a four-day week on full pay from October 2017 after realising how damaging her own relentless focus on work had been to her personal relationships.

“Something had to change, tinkering at the edges wouldn’t cut it; our arrangement wasn’t about condensing 40 hours into four days, or reducing pay. It simply involved all staff working four days a week,” she says. “Everyone had Friday off.”

She reports that “at the end of the first year, revenues were up 57%, new clients had increased by 100%, client referrals by 50%, staff absence and sick days were down 75% and, even better, productivity, as a measure of overall profitability, saw no dip at all”.

Similar findings were noted by the 250-strong New Zealand-based financial services firm Perpetual Guardian, which made a four-day week permanent this year, after academics who studied their initial trial identified lower stress levels, increased job satisfaction and an improved sense of work-life balance. Employee engagement rose by 40% and overall productivity by 20%.

While these examples sound promising, most trials of four-day working weeks have been with relatively small companies. Could it translate to larger organisations?

Caroline Roberts, head of people and talent at Visit Britain has her doubts. “In niche organisations, I can see how you could make this work,” she admits. “But in more traditional businesses, you’ve got a whole array of leadership that would be really against it. If I think of the struggle I have with some line managers even when I’m just talking about flexible working – a move to a four-day week would be very difficult.”

She argues that a more practical option might be to offer a four-day week as an option for any employee who wants it. As she explains, “a really experienced, high-performing staff member working four days a week could certainly deliver a lot more than someone else over five days.”

However, she warns of potential unfairness in arrangements such as these: “A former colleague asked to reduce his hours to a nine-day fortnight, and his line manager said ‘I’m delighted, because I know I will get a full week’s work out of you and I’ll just pay you less’. I think many people would be worried that they would end up doing five-days’ worth of work in four.”

It’s a concern that Walker also recognised, which is why she made it explicit that staff were not expected to be seen working on a Friday or after office hours.

While Roberts isn’t alone in her concerns around the feasibility of introducing a fourday week in large organisations, there are plenty who question its desirability. ‘Hustle culture’, #riseandgrind and humble bragging about being busy are common workplace tropes, with influential advocates.

Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk recently tweeted that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”. He also pointed out that if you love what you do, it doesn’t feel that arduous to do more of it. 

That might well be true: a 2017 Japanese study found an increased risk of depression in those working longer hours, but no correlation when the work was felt to be inherently meaningful and satisfying. However, while Musk’s reassurance might be well received by hard-charging entrepreneurial types, it won’t necessarily help the 37% of UK workers who describe their current job as “meaningless”, as reported by YouGov.

One of the most commonly acknowledged problems with long working hours is that it crowds out any space for truly creative thought. Many advocates of a four-day week note that we have shifted to a knowledge economy but retained the working hours and practices of a former industrial age.

When it comes to knowledge work, a valuable insight could well come to one employee while relaxing in the bath on their day off, while their more diligent colleague agonises at their desk, fruitlessly, for weeks. That doesn’t seem fair. But it does seem to be the case, at least in some instances.

Google, while not going as far as introducing a four-day week, is famous for allowing its engineers to spend one day each week freely exploring their own ideas, in any manner they like. Without the company enabling this additional headspace and time for unhurried reflection, there would have been no Google Earth, Gmail or AdSense, all of which were developed as ad hoc projects.

As Sandra Comas, professor at IE Business School, comments, “the correlation is becoming clearer... Shorter work hours can lead to greater thinking and reflection, opportunity to ‘connect the dots‘, and clarity to see the dots in the first place.”

Automation is another factor to throw into the mix. It’s estimated that, by 2020, 30% of all jobs in the UK have the potential to be done by machines. Some organisations, such as the TUC, believe the benefits of the efficiencies these new technologies bring should be shared fairly across the working population, via a national four-day week.

Suggestions like this have been cropping up regularly since 1930, when the British economist JM Keynes predicted that, due to the increasing efficiencies of automation, we would all be working around 15 hours a week by this point.

Roberts notes that introducing change through legislation, as the TUC suggests, would itself prove difficult. “You’d need a government brave enough to bring it in, and with the resources to check it’s happening,” she says. “For that to happen would require a seismic sea change.”

However, even legislation to formalise the five-day week faced a large number of similar objections. An official four-day week is now an option being actively investigated by the Labour Party and is already official policy for the Green Party.

Meanwhile, large organisations are beginning to explore the option of a shorter working week. For example, biomedical research charity The Wellcome Trust is currently considering whether to introduce a four-day week for its 800 staff based in central London. And last year, Amazon piloted a small programme where some staff worked 30 hours per week with a full benefits package.

Perhaps they were following the advice of ‘father of modern capitalism’ Adam Smith, who suggested, in 1776, that “the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of works”. 

n 2017, the Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim even suggested we should be working a three-day week (with 11-hour days). His point was that our concept of work (learning skills for the first third of our life, applying them for the second and retiring for the last third) is simply outdated. To survive in future, we will have to update and retrain continually, reinventing ourselves multiple times over our working lives. If we are to work until we’re 75, we’ll need to take things a little slower. A similar line of thinking was embraced in Germany when, as a practical response to the economic downturn in 2008, they introduced a policy of kurzarbeit, or ‘short work’, cutting hours instead of jobs. Many workers used the extra time to retrain and learn new skills.

A four-day week won’t, of course, suit all companies, or every worker. But perhaps the growing interest in a shorter working week should prompt us to at least re-examine the benefits of flexible working in general.

Deloitte, for example, quantified the money it had saved due to flexible-working arrangements at $41.5m in one year alone. A survey of job seekers found that almost a third felt flexible working was the most important factor in sourcing a new role, while a survey of managers found 80% believed that offering flexible working options is key to recruiting top talent. Even The Wall Street Journal found that stock price rose by 0.36% following the introduction of flexible-working initiatives. But the idea of introducing a wholesale, company-wide, four-day work week has at least some fans: since announcing its shift to a four-day week, one unexpected result for The Mix has been to be totally overwhelmed – with job applications.