Work less, earn more: is a four-day week the solution?

 (Annie Spratt / Unsplash)
(Annie Spratt / Unsplash)

Campaigners for a four-day working week say they are building a case to try to persuade the new Labour government to consider more time off for employees.

The 4 Day Week Campaign and flexible working consultancy Timewise have partnered to launch a second four-day week pilot in the UK this autumn, with research support from University of Cambridge, Boston College, and the Autonomy Institute.

The pilot project is being launched in the hope that new ministers in Westminster will be “more receptive” to changes in how people work, and an ‘interest list’ has opened to companies who want to give it a try in November.

The findings will be presented to the government in the summer of 2025.

The campaign for a four-day working week – crucially, with no loss of pay – has been gaining momentum in recent years, particularly after the Covid pandemic lockdowns changed expectations around where and when people work. A total of 61 companies took part in the first UK pilot in 2022. Of those, 54 had maintained it a year-and-a-half later. Other projects have run in Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Iceland.

The latest six-month trial to begin on November 4 will also look at other flexible working policies, including a shorter working week, flexible start and finish times, a nine-day fortnight or compressed hours, when people work the same number of hours but over fewer days.

MP for Islington South and Finsbury Emily Thornberry, who was this week left out of Labour’s cabinet, has previously pledged her support for the idea.

She said: “In principle, I am supportive of this. I think it is important to find that work and private life balance, and it could also be important for mental health reasons.

"My concern is whether it will increase productivity. It has been said it does increase, especially in creative industries. But, at a time when we are hitting such a difficult economic period, we are going to end up with high inflation and low wages. There have to be productive gains and look at the evidence.”

The typical British employee spends 42 hours a week at work but produces 16 per cent less on average than workers in other leading economies, according to the Office for National Statistics. Is a four-day working week a solution or economic suicide?

Advocates of four-day weeks argue that the five-day nine-to-five is a product of the industrial revolution – and surely we’ve evolved since then? Some companies are completely redrawing the week. Bold thinkers suggest six days on, three days off, and some have even mooted a three-day week. Here’s how we are flexing our hours.

The numbers game

At Paddle, a software business, working hours aren’t dictated. Christian Owens, the company’s 24-year-old CEO, says: “We trust people to work in the way they prefer, as we believe this leads to higher impact and a healthier culture.”

They’re doing something right – Paddle is the fastest-growing software business in the UK according to Deloitte Fast50.

There are unlimited holidays, flexible working and meetings are kept to a minimum. Owens says: “Our team feels energised because they know they can work from home when they need to focus, or take a day off without sacrificing their holiday if they need to look after their kids. The focus is on outcomes rather than superficial signs such as regularly staying late.”

The economics

In theory, a strict four-day week could save companies money: they are paying staff for fewer days and they might even end up with a more productive workforce. But staff don’t have to lose out. Just follow the Swedish model. At one retirement home, hours were cut from eight to six with no adverse effect on productivity, so there was no cut in pay.

The same goes for the Kellogg’s cornflakes factory. In 1930, when hours went from 40 a week to 30, there were fewer accidents and profits soared. As a result, the cereal maker did the right thing and kept pay as it was, boosting morale.

Why stop at four days?

The four-day working campaign, which is pushing the next trial, said: “The nine-to-five, five-day working week is outdated and no longer fit for purpose.

​”In the UK, we work some of the longest hours in Europe while having one of the least productive economies. We invented the weekend a century ago and are long overdue an update to working hours.

​”We're campaigning for a four-day, 32-hour working week with no loss of pay, which would benefit workers, employers, the economy, our society and our environment.

​”Together, we can build a society where we work to live, rather than live to work.”

Simon Levene, co-founder and partner of Mosaic Ventures, also believes in the model of four days’ work, two days’ rest. It suits shift work as you can stagger when people are working. “Society would have a third of the people who follow the red week,” he explains. “Another third the blue week and the last third the white week. Every day, there would be two groups working and one resting.” He has considered a nine-day week: “Work six days but weekends are three days. Not bad.”

Peak times

Studies suggest that Thursday will not become the new Friday because, if you have less far to go, you focus more: work is not a marathon. “That Friday feeling” often translates into a late start, long lunch and early finish. You’re not productive but you are still at work so you haven’t switched off. If you just cut the Friday, you will properly relax and achieve more on Monday.

The London School of Economics calls it practice efficiency – it’s the idea that a worker is better at their job after a rest period. It also found that knowing that a break is on the way can lead to bursts of motivation. And that’s what every boss wants.