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How to win the fight for a four-day week

The pandemic gave us the space to redress imbalances in our working lives. Is it time to rekindle the fight for a four-day working week? 

September 01 2022, 17.25pm

“There will be no more work with us on Saturdays and Sundays,” Henry Ford announced in 1926. “These will be free days, but the men, according to merit, will receive the same pay equivalent as for a full six-day week.”

“It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either 'lost time' or a class privilege,” he continued. “The country is ready for the five-day week.”

Ford’s was a radical idea, but it made sense given improved efficiency and productivity in factories largely thanks to the implementation of the moving assembly line. Far from being ‘anti-work’, the ardent industrialist saw the benefit of giving workers another day to spend money on consumer products and keep cash circulating in the economy. Across the pond, John Boot, the grandson of the founder of Boots the chemist, followed suit and by the late 1930s the five-day week was standard in the UK. 

Nearly a century on, vast technological advances, such as the development of the computer and the advent of the internet, mean we’re more efficient and productive than ever – yet most workers remain on the same Monday to Friday 9-to-5.

But for some, including 26-year-old Bethany Watson, Fridays aren’t spent scrolling through spreadsheets and knocking back coffees. Instead, they’re prime bonding time with her baby niece. “Friday is pretty much ‘our’ day,” says Bethany, who works at a Newcastle PR company trialling a four-day week. “We're currently in a six month trial period, so it'll be until January 2022. Once we've gathered all the data – monitoring wellbeing, efficiency, that kind of thing – they're going to introduce it permanently, providing it's successful,” she explains.

The concept of the four-day workweek was first floated not long after the introduction of the five-day week. In 1953, then-prime minister Winston Churchill predicted technological advances would one day "give the working man what he's never had – four days' work and then three days' fun." The movement gained traction in 1970s academic circles – and was even trialled in the BBC Radio Manchester newsroom – but excitement soon dimmed when BBC management changed. 

Though momentum slowed, talk of aspiring to a four-day workweek never completely ground to a halt. Pilots have been successful in New Zealand in 2018 and Japan in 2019, while workers in Iceland reported feeling “less stressed and at risk of burnout” after a number of workplaces trialled a reduction of working hours between 2015 and 2019. 

Even more recently, as the pandemic laid bare the absurdity of inflexible working in today’s hyperconnected world, support for the movement has snowballed. Jack Kellam, a researcher at progessive think tank Autonomy, explains “the pandemic has shown that major changes to our working practices can be made successfully, virtually overnight. Remote working had to be implemented very quickly, and despite being a policy that had been resisted by many employers, when it ‘had’ to happen, it was made to work. Reducing our working time now seems like a far more plausible, achievable idea.”

Sonya Barlow, founder of the LMF Network, a social enterprise advocating for women in the workplace, also works a four-day week. “At the beginning of my professional journey, I worked in the tech sector for five years. That's when I first realised that a five-day traditional working structure was not for me,” she recalls. “Being present in an office or online for five days straight doesn't make you more productive or do more. Sometimes, it is quite the opposite.”

So Barlow switched to self-employment, taking the opportunity to set her own working hours. “As someone that suffers from chronic migraines, having a flexible schedule has allowed me to make the most of every hour without compromising my physical or mental health,” she explains.

The four-day week has benefits for society too, not just the individual. Henley Business School found a four-day working week could even save UK businesses an estimated £104 billion annually through increased staff productivity and physical and mental health uplifts.

David Spencer, professor of economics at the University of Leeds, argues tackling work-related illness is the answer to ‘paying’ for the four-day week. “For firms, a four-day week may reduce costs linked to employee ill-health. For the state, it may reduce health costs linked to overwork,” he says. “There is no reason why a four-day week should not pay for itself, even if pay rates remain the same.” Plus, with an extra day off to visit restaurants or go to gigs, it’s possible that industries like hospitality and entertainment could see a boost from additional spending.

The four-day week also has a potential role in addressing the climate crisis. A 2020 Autonomy study found that one fewer working day in the UK could reduce carbon emissions by 117,000 tons – equivalent to removing 1.3 million cars from the road annually. Reducing commuting and granting workers more time to prepare meals could also have a positive environmental impact.

There is even evidence a four-day week could help diversify the workforce and allow greater access to work for people who have been traditionally shut out because of societal barriers. “Reductions in working time can make a significant difference to those most burdened with caring responsibilities – most often, women,” Kellam says. “With more time to take children to school, visit elderly relatives, prepare meals, and so on, life becomes easier.” He adds that feminist scholars like Kathi Weeks have suggested that the four-day week should be seen as a core feminist demand.

Diversifying the workforce is part of the reason Barlow is passionate about emphasising flexible working in her own company. “It's about taking back power and ensuring that work revolves around life, not life around work,” she says. “Women tend to bear most of the child-rearing and carer responsibilities. So, providing them with options on how and when to work can lead to more women entering the workforce instead of leaving it.”

Despite these compelling reasons to switch to a four-day week, the fact remains many are indifferent or even opposed. This is partly due to “collective inertia,” according to Joe Ryle, campaign director at the 4 Day Week Campaign. “Just because the standard 9-to-5, five-day working week has been the norm for such a long time, doesn't mean it's the right way of working,” he says. “The Conservative government is also completely stuck in the past when it comes to working hours.” He’s right: Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement speech repeatedly emphasised the moral superiority of “hard-working families” and “working people” – hardly the words of a man poised to implement a reduction in working hours, or prioritise a better work-life balance.

The government isn’t the only barrier to change. While 63% majority of the population support a four-day week, a sizable 37% are either actively against or unsure about the concept. It’s understandable: as the five-day week has been standard practice for nearly 100 years, many will view our current set-up as the only viable option, or will struggle to see how a four-day week could benefit us all. Many concerns are valid, too: what if bosses expect workers to work four 10 hour days, for example?

So, how do we encourage people to see the opportunity for change, and address the shortcomings of the four day week? “The best thing to do would be to start having the conversations in your workplace and to start making the case for it. Then try to unionise because the trade union movement and worker power is going to be key in enabling this shift,” suggests Ryle, whose campaign has a petition – signed by over 130,000 people – supporting the cause.

Kellam agrees: “A reduction in working time has historically been a core demand of the union movement, and is now returning to prominence,” he says. “The story of shorter hours in Iceland shows what can be achieved through collective action – trade unions are an essential component of the movement for a four-day week.”

It’s unsurprising that the growth of the anti-work movement and the Great Resignation happened alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. Over lockdown, many of us had the time and space to reflect on our working lives, and in many cases we realised that we were suffering from burnout (a condition which the World Health Organisation officially recognised as a syndrome in 2019). More importantly, the pandemic has shown us that life really is too short, that time is not something we can take for granted. When our health and freedom can be stripped away from us so easily and so arbitrarily – why should we spend one third of our lives at work? 

“In the end, the question is whether we want to retain a work-centred society or move to a society that offers us more time for ourselves, our families and communities,” Spencer surmises. “In time, we may look back with some regret that we went on working as long as we did.”

For now, this is the biggest obstacle that campaigners must overcome: getting people to see that things don’t have to be this way. The idea that hard work is a signifier of moral probity is so deeply entrenched in our collective psyche: it’s why ‘laziness’ is seen as sinful; it’s why being told you’re ‘hard-working’ is a compliment; it’s why, even in our leisure time, we still feel the urge to get up at 6am to do a high intensity workout, meditate, and then scribble away in a gratitude journal.

It will take time for us to collectively unlearn the idea that work loves us back – but as Spencer says, it’s likely a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’, when it comes to the four-day week. With the ongoing UK four-day-week trial yielding promising results already, with participants reporting improved happiness and productivity, this radical change could be just around the corner.