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It’s Time for the Four-Day Week

The biggest-ever pilot of the four-day week proves that cutting working hours with no loss of pay makes us happier, healthier and more productive. Now it’s time for the trade union movement to fight for a shorter working week for all.

3000 British workers trialled a four-day week with no loss of pay in the biggest-ever pilot of its kind. (4 Day Week Campaign)

From June to December last year, almost 3,000 UK workers hailing from sectors across the economy trialled a four-day week with no loss of pay, in the biggest pilot study worldwide to date

Results from the trial released this week speak to the transformational impact of shorter working hours on the lives of workers: less stress, fewer sleep problems, better work-life balance, and more time for themselves and their friends and family.

The four-day week is popular, well-evidenced, and good for workers. It would benefit the environment and has the growing backing of business too. It’s time that progressive politicians and the labour movement put the shorter working week ‘front and centre’ to ensure that reductions in working time continue to be made in the interest of all.

Healthier and Happier

During the six-month trial period, workers in organisations ranging from consultancy firms to housing associations, breweries and robotics companies cut their working hours without losing any of their pay. While the structure of their four-day week varied—some companies opted for a full ‘day off’, others 32 hours across five days, and so on—looking at the results, there was much in common. 

Comparing data taken before and after the trial period, researchers found that measures of stress, burnout and sleep problems had all fallen, while life and job satisfaction had increased, and physical and mental health had improved. Workers found it easier to balance work and caring responsibilities, and even found themselves happier with their household finances. At the end of the trial, unsurprisingly, at least 92 percent of participants wanted shorter working hours to stay.

Almost all of them will get their wish to see the four-day week continue as a new normal: 56 of the 61 companies are sticking to shorter working hours, having seen their own benefits in greater staff retention, improved productivity and higher revenue. As a result, thousands of workers will now be on reduced hours, for no loss in pay, continuing to enjoy all the accompanying improvements in wellbeing and work-life balance.

Evidence is Mounting

In truth, there isn’t much from the pilot about the four-day week’s benefits that hadn’t already come to light from the growing number of trial schemes taking place worldwide in recent years. The use of rigorous ‘before-and-after’ metrics and extensive qualitative interviews in the UK programme may mean that advocates of shorter working hours now stand on stronger ground than ever before, but the evidence has long been stacking up. 

In Iceland, a reduced working week saw significant improvements to participants’ work-life balance, while another programme run across the United States, Ireland and beyond saw falls in stress and fatigue, alongside upticks in physical and mental health. Microsoft Japan and Unilever New Zealand both saw improvements in productivity after a shift to shorter working hours, and the UK itself now has more than 120 ‘accredited’ four-day week employers ready to cite the transformational impact on staff. 

Now’s the Time

With evidence from global trials demonstrating extensive benefits to workers, and consistent opinion polling showing that the policy’s popularity is in little doubt, on reflection, it’s surprising that the four-day week is not yet completely taken-for-granted as a core demand of progressive policymakers and trade unions around the UK. Amidst a tide of increasing insecurity, low pay and overwork, the campaign for a four-day week has been delivering better conditions, a 20 percent increase in ‘per hour’ pay, and— crucially—a sense that ‘another workplace is possible’ to thousands of workers nationwide. These are massive ‘wins’.

In this context, the broader progressive response appears underwhelming. While, of course, a four-day week formed part of the UK Labour Party’s manifesto in 2019, has remained consistent in UK Greens’ programmes, is now official Plaid Cymru policy, and continues to garner pockets of support across the UK’s major parties, elsewhere the policy has often stalled—all while the case for shorter hours only gets stronger.

In Scotland, much to campaigners’ frustration, the SNP-led government has delayed its four-day week trial; while in Wales, the Labour government continues to sit on the fence regarding pilot schemes, ‘waiting for results elsewhere’, despite calls from Senedd committees and the country’s Future Generations Commissioner to back public sector trials. The UK Labour Party remains silent for now—despite many Shadow Cabinet members admitting privately this is something they support.

However, the lukewarm response from labour movement leadership is more surprising—particularly when we remember that, through much of the 20th century, shorter working hours were the trade union’s number one demand. It’s only through the struggle of unions that we have a ‘weekend’ at all.

The UCU, backed by the RMT and CWU (who negotiated a landmark agreement of shorter working hours for postal workers in 2018), successfully passed a motion calling for a four-day week at TUC Congress in 2021, and PCS Scotland, following research with the think tank Autonomy, has made a 28-hour week a key component of its pay claim.

More often, though, the four-day week is met with much more cautious support. To an extent, this is understandable. In a cost-of-living crisis, pay is often seen as a priority, and—as a largely ‘business-led’ movement to date, there’s sometimes suspicion about the real motives behind a four-day week (‘is this an attempt to increase control over workers?’), as well as its potential unintended consequences (from its impact on holiday allowance, to concern that more marginalised workers will be left behind). 

These are important concerns, but they’re why the trade union movement should be leading the charge for a four-day week, ensuring it continues to improve the lives of workers. In the coming years, more and more employers will begin shifting to shorter working hours, offering a crucial opportunity for trade unions to help lock-in better conditions for thousands of workers. 

Likewise, while pay may remain the ‘headline’ demand as wages are squeezed amid inflation, chronic issues of burnout and ill health stemming from long working hours are not going to disappear. In many professions, particularly among public sector workers like teachers and doctors, overwork is already the core problem. As a central demand, the four-day week would put working time back on the table, connecting the labour movement with a trend already underway organically within society.

The evidence is in place, popularity is growing: now’s the time for progressive policymakers and trade unions to fight to shape a four-day week future.