The results we’ve all been waiting for are finally in – a four-day working week really does work, according to a major new study. For a six-month period starting in June 2022, 61 UK companies reduced their employees’ working hours by 20 per cent, with no changes made to their salary.
Staff who took part were surveyed throughout the trial, and 71 per cent reported lower levels of burnout than before, while 39 per cent said they were less stressed.
All the while, the majority of bosses found productivity targets continued to be met, and they even benefitted from a 1.4 per cent increase in revenue on average.
The programme was coordinated by campaign groups 4 Day Week Global and 4 Day Week Campaign in the UK, think tank Autonomy and academics at the University of Cambridge and Boston College in the US.
A four-day working week results in reducing the number of staff quitting their jobs and taking sick days, a new study has found (stock image)
Change in participating employees’ reported levels of ‘burnout’ – measured by how often they felt exhaustion or frustration – from immediately before the trial began to its endpoint
Joe Ryle, Director of 4 Day Week Campaign, calls the results a ‘major breakthrough moment’ for the idea of shorter working weeks.
Where did the five-day week come from?
Prior to the Great Depression, the first example of a five-day week was seen in 1908.
A mill in New England, US, allowed a two-day weekend so that Jewish workers could observe the Sabbath on Saturdays. Sunday was already a work-free day due to its holy status in Christianity.
In 1926, carmaker Henry Ford gave his staff both days off, and created a 40-hour week for employees.
By 1932, the US had officially adopted the five-day week, to tackle unemployment created by the Great Depression.
The UK followed suit in 1933, when John Boot, from Boots corporation, closed factories on Saturdays and Sundays, and made it the company’s official policy the next year.
He said: ‘Across a wide variety of different sectors of the economy, these incredible results show that the four-day week actually works.’
Sociologist Professor Brendan Burchell, from the University of Cambridge said: ‘Before the trial, many questioned whether we would see an increase in productivity to offset the reduction in working time – but this is exactly what we found.
‘Many employees were very keen to find efficiency gains themselves. Long meetings with too many people were cut short or ditched completely.
‘Workers were much less inclined to kill time, and actively sought out technologies that improved their productivity.’
In 2021, a survey found that three quarters of UK white-collar workers were considering quitting their jobs due to ‘burnout’, a lack of ‘work-life balance’ and ‘toxic’ workplace environments.
Indeed, a shortened working week encourages staff to take more care of their children or elderly parents, volunteer or pick up new hobbies or interests during the extended weekend.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw more employees working from home and adopting more flexible hours instead of the usual nine-to-five, five-day working week.
‘Workers have emerged from the pandemic with different expectations around what constitutes a healthy life-work balance,’ Joe O’Connor, the chief executive of 4 Day Week Global, told The Guardian.
Last year, a survey revealed that nearly three in four UK employees wanted to move to a four-day working week after the pandemic.
The cost of living crisis – including the price of the commute – and childcare issues are major reasons why so many are pushing for fewer hours and more flexibility.
From 2015 to 2019, the idea was trialled with 2,500 workers in Iceland, and was deemed an ‘overwhelming success’.
Workers were less stressed and had a better work-life balance while bosses saw no significant drop-off in productivity or provision of services, analysts said.
Several ‘influencer’ agencies are already operating a four-day working week, including Engage Hub, whose employees will have either a Wednesday or a Friday off, rotating every eight weeks.
Companies in Japan are also increasingly switching to four-day weeks to improve the work-life balance for its employees.
However some critics say the concept would be impossible in customer-facing jobs, or 24/7 operations including where overtime payments would present an extra cost to employers or the taxpayer.
Some economists have argued that working fewer hours would decrease the standard of living and the leader of one of Spain’s main business associations has previously described it as ‘madness’.
Average change in revenue and number of employees at participating companies from immediately before the trial began to its endpoint. ‘Comparison’ denotes data from the same period in 2021
Around 2,900 employees took place in the latest trial, from industries including financial services, retail, consultancy, housing, IT, marketing, hospitality and recruitment.
Companies involved were both big and small, from the Royal Society of Biology to a local fish-and-chip shop.
Each one was charged up to £10,000 to take part, MailOnline has learned.
Both employees and CEOs were interviewed about how they were getting on by organisers before, during and after the trial, and completed surveys.
Through these, they discovered the effects of the four-day week on the people involved and how it was being implemented.
While some organisations stopped work completely, allowing all employees a three-day weekend, others operated a staggered shift pattern for a reduced workforce.
One restaurant calculated its employees’ hours for the whole year with a 32-hour week, and spread them to account for seasonal changes in opening hours.
Some companies applied caveats to their employees taking part in the trial, like reduced annual leave, performance targets and agreement that they could come in at short notice if required.
Many bosses increased their employees’ efficiency by implementing shorter meetings, interruption-free ‘focus periods’ and end-of-day task lists for handovers.
Some even reformed ’email etiquette’ in the workplace to reduce long chains and overfilled inboxes.
Change to participating employees’ experience of being ‘too tired from work to do household jobs’ after work from immediately before the trial began to its endpoint
Change to participating employees’ experience of sleep difficulties and insomnia from immediately before the trial began to its endpoint
Change to participating employees’ satisfaction with the amount of time they have to do the things they enjoy from immediately before the trial began to its endpoint
Some employees said that efforts to make them more productive during the four days they worked hindered their creativity, or that the staff reduction increased their workload. Pictured: Change to participating employees’ workload from immediately before the trial to its endpoint
In September last year, when companies reached the halfway point of the trial, it was revealed that not all had found the transition to a four-day week easy.
Pros and cons of a four-day week
- Fewer distractions at work
- Longer hours does not mean more output
- Increased mental wellbeing and physical health
- Parents with children find themselves less stressed out
- Lowered carbon footprint
- Not all industries can participate
- It might widen existing inequalities
- The cost risk for employers is expensive
- Workers may put in the same hours anyways
- Difficult team management
On a scale of one to five indicating how smooth the shift had been, with a grade of one representing ‘extremely smooth’, 22 per cent did not rate the move to a shorter week one or two.
However, about 95 per cent of the companies surveyed said productivity had either stayed the same or improved since the introduction.
Claire Daniels, CEO at Trio Media, said that revenue at her business – which had £450,000 sales last year and is budgeting for £650,000 this year – had increased during the trial.
She added: ‘The four-day week trial so far has been extremely successful for us. Productivity has remained high, with an increase in wellness for the team, along with our business performing 44 per cent better financially.’
After collating the results at the end of the trial, it was found that levels of anxiety and fatigue reported by employees had decreased, while their mental and physical health increased.
This overall health improvement resulted in a 65 per cent reduction in the number of sick days taken by employees.
‘It was common for employees to describe a significant reduction in stress,’ said researcher and Cambridge PhD candidate Niamh Bridson Hubbard.
‘Many described being able to switch off or breathe more easily at home. One person told us how their “Sunday dread” had disappeared.’
Those caring for children or relatives benefitTed from the four-day work week, as 60 per cent found it easier to balance work around these responsibilities.
Another 62 per cent said they found they had an improved social life as it was easier to combine it with their work life.
Employees were also less incentivised to change jobs thanks to their new work schedule, with a 57 per cent reduction in staff leaving compared to the year before.
When asked what they did with their extra day off, many people said they did more of the recreational activities they already did, like sports, cooking and volunteering.
Other found new passions, or earned professional qualifications to boost their career.
However the most popular way to spend the day was catching up on ‘life admin’ – like shopping or chores – so they enjoy their leisure time more on the weekend.
Parents of older children said their reduced hours meant they enjoyed some more ‘me time’, while those with younger children saved money on hired childcare.
Since the pandemic turned many employees towards remote work, some bosses, including Lord Alan Sugar, have expressed concern about the loss of workplace interaction and culture.
In fact, one reason some employers were keen to take part in the trial was that the four-day week is a preferred alternative to allowing employees to work from home permanently.
However, despite coming into the office less, employees felt a greater sense of camaraderie with their colleagues while trying to make the four-day week a success.
On the other hand, some said that efforts to make them more productive during the four days they did work hindered their creativity, or that the staff reduction increased their workload.
Change to employees’ time inadequacy from immediately before the trial began to its endpoint. Employees were asked to report whether they ‘would like to spend more time’ pursuing a range of categories
A shortened working week encourages staff to take more care of their children or elderly parents, or pick up new hobbies or interests during the extended weekend (stock image)
The majority – 92 per cent – of participating companies said they intended to continue with a four-day working week after the trial, and 30 per cent confirmed they had made it permanent. Pictured: Participating companies’ plans for after the trial
Bosses at participating companies had different reasons for testing out the four-day work week, many of which were linked to the post-Covid home-working revolution.
Some said that being open to a modern practice would help them attract new talent, and other felt they had a new ‘moral responsibility’ after witnessing their staff struggle during the pandemic.
The CEO of a non-profit that took part in the trial said: ‘I hated the pandemic, but it’s made us see each other much more in the round, and it’s made us all realise the importance of having a healthy head, and that family matters.’
Others said that they had been considering reducing company hours for a number of years due to staff stress and burnout becoming more prevalent.
But those who fear ChatGPT taking their job need not worry, as not one of the bosses cited technology reducing the need for their staff as a reason for taking part.
The majority – 92 per cent – of participating companies said they intended to continue with a four-day working week after the trial, and 30 per cent confirmed they had made it permanent.
A consultancy CEO involved in the trial said: ‘When you realise that day has allowed you to be relaxed and rested, and ready to absolutely go for it on those other four days, you start to realise that to go back to working on a Friday would feel really wrong – stupid actually.’
Professor Burchell added: ‘When we ask employers, a lot of them are convinced the four-day week is going to happen.
‘It has been uplifting for me personally, just talking to so many upbeat people over the last six months.
‘A four-day week means a better working life and family life for so many people.’
The UK companies that took part in the four-day work week trial:
5 Squirrels – Healthcare
Adzooma – Tech
AKA Case Management – Domiciliary Care
Allcap Limited – Industrial & construction supplies
Amplitude – Creative Marketing Agency
Bedrock Learning – EdTech (Primary and Secondary Education)
Bookishly – Gift
Boom Studios – Creative & Cultural
Charity Bank – Financial Services (Banking)
Comcen – IT
Eurowagens – Automotive
Everledger – Technology
Evolution Money Limited – Financial Services
Future Talent Learning – Online Education
Girling Jones – Recruitment
Happy – Learning
Helping Hands – Housing/Health and Social Care
Hutch – Games
IE Brand – Digital & Branding
Literal Humans – Marketing / Advertising
Loud Mouth Media – Digital Marketing
Merthyr Valley Homes Limited – Housing
MOX – Advertising
NeatClean – Consumer Goods
Our Community – Technology & Training
Outcomes Based Healthcare – Healthcare
Outcomes First Group – Care and Education services
Platten’s Fish and Chips – Hospitality
Pressure Drop Brewing – Brewing / manufacturing
Rivelin Robotics – Software / Manufacturing
Royal Society of Biology – Charity
Salamandra.uk – Animation
Scotland’s International Development Alliance – Charity
Secure Digital Exchange Ltd – IT
Sensat – Software Start Up
Sounds Like These – Media
Stellar Asset Management – Financial Services
Stemettes – Charity
The Story Mob – Public Relations / Comms
Timberlake Consultants Ltd / TLKE Ltd – Software Training Consultancy
Trio Media – Digital Marketing
Tyler Grange – Environmental Consulting
Unity – Public Relations / Comms
Waterwise – Environmental campaigning organisation (not4profit)
We Are Purposeful – Not for profit
Yo Telecom – Telecommunications Southampton