Could a four-day working week make employees more productive?

The prospect of a four-day working week might seem like a distant dream for most employees, but there’s an increasing body of research that suggests an extra day off could actually boost productivity. Since the Industrial Revolution, the five-day week has been the norm for most UK workers, but are we really working in the most productive way?

Britain's productivity problem

Despite working some of the longest hours in Europe, the UK has a longstanding ‘productivity problem’. The average British worker has a 34-minute lunch break and works an average of 10 hours longer than their contracted hours every week (usually unpaid), yet our productivity lags behind our European neighbours. In fact, in France, where it recently became illegal to expect workers to answer emails outside of working hours, the average worker produces more by the end of Thursday than we do in a five-day week.

So why is that? Well, the UK is the only EU country that allows workers to opt out of the EU working time directive, which sets a maximum limit of a 48 working hour week. This shows that the pressure to work long hours is cultural, yet it’s completely counterproductive. All those extra hours worked takes a toll on workers’ health and happiness. The result is more days off due to work-related stress, anxiety, and ill-health.

How could a four-day working week help?

Determining whether a four-day week could lead to a boost in productivity is difficult. There are a number of variables that must be taken into account when measuring productivity. That includes the job itself, the level of demand for a business’s products or services, the economic status of the worker and much more. That’s compounded by the fact that many businesses don’t measure their own productivity, and if they do, they don’t make the information publicly available. However, that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying.

The New Zealand trial

The biggest study to date into the potential impact of a four-day working week took place in Auckland in 2018. Having read a UK productivity survey that suggested employees were only productive for three hours of an eight-hour day, the CEO of a trust company decided to reduce employees’ working hours from a 40-hour, five-day week to 32 hours spread over four days. He invited academics from the University of Auckland to measure the effects.

The biggest change reported by the researchers was a 24 percent improvement in employees’ work-life balance. There was also a 20 percent increase in team engagement and a 7 percent decrease in stress levels. Supervisors also said that the employees were more creative, had better attendance and didn’t take long breaks. However, in terms of productivity, the actual performance of the employees didn’t change.

The study also revealed some negative impacts of the four-day week. Stress levels among certain employees were higher, particularly one group who had to break the terms of the trial to complete a project on time. There was also no improvement in the quality of the work completed. Overall though, the CEO of the trust company was so impressed with the findings that he is now considering a permanent switch to a four-day week.

The jury’s still out

As to whether a four-day working week will make employees more productive, that’s still yet to be seen. However, given the research cited above, if productivity levels remain the same, the case for a four-day week should be based on the improvements in work-life balance, the increase in engagement and the boost in employee morale.

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