Credit: Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Four day week in Wales: Why are campaigners and the Senedd calling for government-led trial?

Welsh workers could benefit from a better work-life balance and increased productivity, just as other four day week pilots have already shown

THE idea of a shorter working week is not a new one. 

Until the five day week was widely adopted – thanks largely to the demands of early labour union movements and bosses such as Henry Ford noticing that workers were more productive with a weekend off – working six days a week was often the norm. 

And before long, with Senedd members and various campaigners calling for a Welsh pilot scheme, we could see the typical working week in Wales and the rest of the UK shrink down further, to a four day one.

Since the pandemic-induced increase in hybrid working, and as bosses look to boost productivity and the health and work-life balances of their employees, the conversation around the switch to a four day week has been growing.

And one of those voices driving this discussion is that of Charlotte Lockhart, Founder and Managing Director of 4 Day Week Global, a New Zealand-based not-for-profit organisation that has overseen various trials of four day working week patterns across the world, including in the UK. 

She believes a four day week will soon become the norm in the UK and therefore Wales.

“The pandemic forced us to care about our staff’s mental health and physical health, and so therefore, instead of being here in our minds, it’s come to the top of our minds,” she said.

“While the four day week UK campaign is very plugged in, particularly on the left, and you’ll probably have a Labour Government next time around, so those conversations are being had.

“It’s going to take time, but you know, I would be surprised if we’re still working the standard work week in five years time.”

‘There is more to the four day week than just an extra day off’

Ms Lockhart stresses that the idea of a four day working week is not simply about giving staff an extra day off, but is instead driven by improving productivity. 

“To be very clear, what we talk about is a productivity focused, reduced-hour workplace,” she said. 

“When Peter Dowd [Labour MP for Bootle] put up his 32 hour working week bill, he said that it has been proven that when you reduce work time, productivity goes up.

“That’s not what our research proves at all.

“What our research proves is that if you focus on productivity, you can reduce work time. And so it’s quite an important differentiation.

“The workplace therefore needs to focus on productivity and put productivity at its heart, not measurement of time.

“And when you do that, and when people are clear about what productivity is, and what their productive outcome is, what’s required of them, they are enabled in the workplace to be productive.”

Ms Lockhart and her colleagues hope to see 4 Day Week Global’s 100-80-100™ model of work set the benchmark for what a reduced working week of the future will look like but she stresses that just working four days is not a one-size-fits all approach.

Credit: 4 Day Week Global

So this is being paid 100% of the pay, for 80% of the time with 100% of the productivity, and that’s a messy equation for an economy, right? Because not everybody can just close their offices on a Friday,” she said.

“We’re not necessarily just talking about a four day week, we’re also talking about a meaningful reduction in work time.

“And so therefore, it might be that, you know, for some organisations, it’s a case of starting work at 10, finishing at three, or for some staff doing that. 

“Depending on how you manage your business, you can have a fully flexible workforce, they just don’t work more than 30 hours a week.”

So what are the benefits for employees?

According to one leading campaign group in the UK, the main benefit to be reaped from switching to a four day working week is a better work-life balance.

With fewer days spent working, they argue that workers could have more time to ‘live happier and more fulfilled lives’ by being enabled to catch up on the areas of their life that are often neglected by heavy work schedules. 

These areas include rest, spending time with friends and family, pursuing hobbies, as well as catching up on ‘life admin’ (tasks such as shopping, managing finances, parenting etc).  

They also argue that there are positive outcomes for the cost of living, with no loss in pay for a four day week accompanied by lower childcare and commuting costs. 

One person who has benefited from one of the above outcomes is Joe Sciortino, 26, who works as a podiatrist in Cardiff. 

Mr Sciortino, originally from Malta, runs his own practice in the Welsh capital and recently switched to a four day week so that he could pursue his studies.

“I started [working a four day week] last week and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit,” he said. 

“It’s not really because I’m after the four day week, it just happens that I’m doing that because I’m taking up a part-time course.

“I like it because I’ve got other commitments at this moment in time so I feel it has been freeing in that regard.”

Promotional material from the 4 Day Week UK campaign.

Another positive case is that of Amanda Kay, 52, who works in HR for a firm based in Swansea that switched to the four day week model at the start of this year. 

She works Tuesday to Friday and praised the change to her working pattern.  

“It’s meant that I essentially get an extra day to do things, without it feeling like it’s eating into my weekend,” she said.

“I can keep on top of the housework, sorting the kids, bills and that sort of thing and I still get my two-day weekend then to do more recreational activities.

“It’s been a really positive lifestyle change. 

“Of course, it comes with a little more pressure as you’re fitting in more of a workload into the other days but I don’t mind it too much as it keeps me focused. 

“I feel a bit less stressed if anything because that extra day means I can keep on top of the things that I’d often have to fit around my previous work pattern. 

“Working from home also helps as it means that I’m not having a couple of hours’ commute on the days that I don’t have to go to the office.”

Ms Kay also feels that working a day less than before has not negatively impacted her productivity levels, and believes that it is having a positive impact on some of her colleagues too. 

“I’m getting the same amount done in less time and while using less of the company’s resources, so I’m probably just as productive,” she said.

“On the occasions that I have been in the office on a Friday, I haven’t noticed quite so many weary faces counting down until 5pm.

“So from that perspective, maybe it’s helping reduce burn out.”

Charlotte Lockhart also highlights these potential health benefits for employees, as well as the positive outcomes for gender equality, with parents enabled to better share childcare responsibilities. 

“I mean, the benefits for employees are around health and mental health,” she said.

“People can do their jobs in less time, and be less stressed, and get all of the benefits. They’re also able to engage in society and improve gender balancing in the workplace and at home.” 

And the benefits for employers?

She also argues that having a healthier workforce benefits employers too, and points out the other advantages for bosses.

“There are other things that tend to change for businesses, as absenteeism goes down, recruitment and hiring costs go down, power consumption goes down.

“So there’s actually quite a lot of benefits for a business. And they have happier workforces,” she said.

Those at the 4 Day Week UK campaign also argue that reducing the working week would enable organisations to attract and retain more talented employees as a result of the attractive prospect of a shorter working week.

They also point to trials and real-world examples that demonstrate how employers could benefit from higher performance and profits as a result of a shift in working patterns, citing a 2019 study by Henley Business School as one example, which suggested that UK businesses would save a combined £104 billion a year if a four day week was implemented across the entire workforce.

What did the UK trial tell us?

Ms Lockhart’s organisation oversaw a successful UK pilot in 2022, the biggest of its kind globally so far, which saw 61 companies, including two Welsh businesses, introduce a ‘meaningful’ reduction in work time for their combined 2900 employees over a six-month trial period.

The companies, from a variety of sectors including marketing, finance, engineering and healthcare, were free to implement whichever reduced working pattern they saw fit, so long as they adhered to 4 Day Week Global’s 100-80-100™ model of work (100% of the pay, for 80% of the time worked, in exchange for 100% of the productivity).

Sights like this could become even more common on a Friday in a post-four day week/ hybrid-working world. Credit: Kate Sade on Unsplash

And the findings are quite compelling.

Of the 61 companies that participated, 56 are continuing with the four day week (92%), with 18 confirming that the policy has become a permanent change.

While the feedback from employees has validated many of the arguments made by campaigners in favour of the idea, with 39% of employees saying they were less stressed and 71% having reduced levels of burnout at the end of the trial. 

Many also found it easier to balance their work with both family and social commitments. 

For 54%, it was easier to balance work with household jobs and employees were also said to be more satisfied with their household finances, relationships and how their time was being managed. 

Furthermore, 60% of employees found an increased ability to combine paid work with care responsibilities, and 62% reported it easier to combine work with social life.

Employers also benefited from the trial with the number of staff leaving participating companies decreasing significantly, dropping by 57% over the pilot period.

There were also reported revenue increases of 35% compared to similar periods from previous years.

Where else has it been piloted?

One of the more well-known cases that supporters of the four day week often point to is that of Microsoft Japan who, in the summer of 2019, gave their entire 2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row without decreasing pay

The company found that shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by 40%, while employees took 25% less time off during the trial.

Microsoft Japan ran a successful four day week trial in 2019 which caused a 40% jump in productivity. Credit: Turag Photography on Unsplash

Savings on office running costs were also made. Electricity use was down 23% with the additional day off per week, and employees printed 59% fewer pages of paper.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of employees, 92%, said they liked the shorter week.

As for other countries who have introduced or trialled the four day week, there are plenty of examples. 

Belgium recently became the first European nation to enshrine into law the choice for employees to condense their usual five day week into four if they so wish. 

There are also trials taking place in Spain and Portugal, as well as one announced for Scotland, which has since run into delays. 

Prior to the UK’s pilot, Iceland initially led the way with two large, concurrent trials between 2015-2019 which saw 2500 workers have their hours cut with no reduction in pay. 

Hailed as a success by the researchers behind it, the trial led to a significant change in the country, with nearly 90% of the nation’s workforce now having reduced hours or other flexible conditions.

What about a four day week trial in Wales?

Following the success of the UK trial, and the positive results in other countries, some in Wales have been calling on the Welsh Government to implement a pilot scheme of their own.

The Senedd Petitions Committee is one such body echoing these calls.

In January of this year, it issued a report advising Mark Drakeford and Co. to lead the way by working with employers in the devolved areas of the public sector to trial a four day week in Wales. 

The committee’s chair, Jack Sargeant MS, has since reiterated his support for the idea and dismissed concerns raised around employees ending up overstressed as a result of shortening their working week but not necessarily their workload.

“A Four Day Week is the opposite to a rigid approach,” he said. 

“We simply need to ask ourselves the question: ‘When working people switched from a 6 to a 5 day week, did this result in people being more overworked or more stressed?’  No. 

The Senedd Petitions Committee has called on the Welsh Government to set up a four day week pilot scheme of its own. Credit: Jonny Gios on Unsplash

“The opponents of change will always argue that change just isn’t possible.They argued it over a 5-day week, paternity pay, paid holiday and so many other positive changes.”

Mr Sargeant, along with his fellow committee members, considered evidence from a variety of sources, including academics, campaigners, and business leaders. 

Their decision was also largely informed by the findings of another report, commissioned by the then Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Sophie Howe, who also called for a shorter working week trial.

As well as a public sector pilot scheme, Ms Howe’s report asks for private firms to be supported in their own transition to shorter hours, alongside empowering trade unions to negotiate for these conditions to be offered to their members.

‘Public support for a pilot is there’

Polling from the report also indicates a large appetite for a reduction in working hours from the Welsh public.

It found that 62% of them would ideally choose to work a four day working week or less, while 57% said they would support a Welsh Government pilot scheme. 

Public support for such a scheme is reflected in the views of the workers who we spoke to as part of this article, with both Mr Sciortino and Ms. Kay embracing the idea of a public sector trial, something which the Welsh Government are said to be exploring.

However, when approached for comment, Welsh Economy Minister Vaughan Gething would not be drawn into laying out a specific timeline as to when we might see a nationwide trial. 

Instead, a spokesperson said: “In keeping with our social partnership way of working in Wales, we have established a Working Group of the Workforce Partnership Council to explore this issue.  

“We are clear that any pilot will require consensus and collective commitment. That is why it is important we do not take any final decisions on whether we should or should not support a pilot before we have allowed our social partners to give this matter proper consideration. 

“The Working Group has met on a number of occasions and it will continue to meet over the coming months. We look forward to providing an update on that work ahead of the next meeting of the Workforce Partnership Council in November.”

Following those comments, and with an estimated cost of around £1 billion (roughly 10.5% of the annual public sector salary bill) likely to come against the backdrop of inflation-related budgetary shortfalls of around £900 million, it does seem unlikely that a trial on the scale that is being called for will go ahead in the near future.