Could a four-day work week ever be introduced in the UK?

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has resulted in many changes to how we live our lives and how businesses operate. But could there ever be a four-day work week introduced in the UK? Victoria Templeton of HR Solutions looks at the possibility.

Four-Day Work Week UK

What is a four-day work week?

As the name suggests, a four-day work week is where full-time employees have three days off in a week; the introduction of which would see a move away from having an economy that has been based on an 8-hour working day, over a 5-day period. 

The concept might seem radical and, perhaps at any other time, highly unlikely. However, with the country feeling the impact of coronavirus and the chancellor Rishi Sunak stating in May that it was very likely the UK economy will face a significant recession, we should not be entirely surprised if we see companies moving to a four-day work week to stimulate their business.

In June a group of cross-party MPs wrote to the chancellor asking the government to consider a four-day working week: “Work patterns have already been dramatically altered as a result of the pandemic and we believe the time is now right to explore putting a four-day, 30-hour working week (or any equivalent variation) front and centre – including protections for those on low incomes – as the country unites behind building back better out of this crisis.”

What are the advantages of a four-day work week?

There are many arguments for a four-day work week in the UK, with the main argument being that it could support the UK’s economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic. Many believe that by introducing shorter working time, productivity will increase, and the UK’s economy will therefore be bolstered. Businesses who are struggling financially after the pandemic can also save costs and avoid redundancies with a shorter working week.

But there are also the non-financial benefits; namely that a shorter working week will undoubtedly lead to an improved work-life balance for many. According to the charity MIND, poor mental health is increasing with 25 per cent of adults and 10 per cent of children now experiencing some form of mental illness. HSE also reports that in 2019 over 15.4 million working days were lost in the UK due to work related stress, anxiety and depression at a cost of £5.2 billion.

Reducing working time will also give employers a wider pool of talent when recruiting, enabling organisations to tap into skills they may not have otherwise been able to. For example, we know that it is still typical for women to take breaks from careers to raise a family; a shorter working week would likely attract many women back into the workplace. Not only would a four-day week give individuals more opportunities, especially those from disadvantaged groups, but it would broaden the skillsets available to a business.

A further benefit is the impact on the environment. We have already seen improvements in carbon emissions as a result of worldwide lockdowns and while these improvements are perhaps temporary, it does highlight what is possible with less commuting.

What are the disadvantages of a four-day work week?

Changing to a shorter working week will undoubtedly bring significant change to an organisation and the practical implementation of it is likely to be challenging, especially to those small businesses who may not have a dedicated HR team to help them manage the change.

Reducing the operating hours of a business also requires fundamental changes to the employment contract and not all contracts include flexibility clauses that allow employers to make such changes, meaning a more delicate approach is required to seek mutual consent. The legal consequences could therefore be significant and costly if the process is not handled carefully with a fair and thorough procedure.

The nature of the business will also be relevant. For example, an outsourcing business providing a service would need to mirror the working pattern of its clients. Any public sector changes could also have major ramifications on the public services they provide.

For many organisations, it may be that they continue to operate over a 7-day period but would have to introduce shift working to enable staff coverage and the administration effort required in order to maintain efficient business operations may become greater. 

Will a four-day working week be introduced in UK law?

In 2018, Lord Skidelsky was commissioned by the Labour Party to investigate the feasibility of limiting hours of work. Within his report ‘How to achieve shorter working hours’, Lord Skidelsky acknowledges the historical arguments for shorter working hours, including how it would lower the rate of unemployment due to work sharing. However, he suggested that the key to successful implementation is increasing productivity.

In 2000 France introduced a 35-hour limit on working hours. According to law firm iLaw, its apparent success is down to the legislation incorporating many exceptions and loopholes to allow industries where a fixed working week is not feasible to still operate. Therefore, any introduction of a four-day working week in the UK would need similar exceptions and loopholes and this can take time.

Given the implications of changing to a four-day working week, and the amount of time it would take to get legislation through both the House of Commons and House of Lords, we wouldn’t expect it to be introduced in UK law any time soon.

Should you introduce a four-day work week?

But while it may not be set in UK law soon, individual businesses can implement four-day work weeks themselves. This will depend on many factors but fundamentally you’ll need to analyse whether a shorter working week will help the operation of your business given the challenges expected. As well as generating financial forecasts, you should also consider the non-financial benefits that will arise from a four-day work week.

An important consideration is whether your employment contracts include a flexibility clause which allows you to change the working hours of your business and employees. An audit of every employee’s contract will be important.

Consideration should be given to whether you are a unionised environment too; those employers who recognise a union are best to engage with them early to seek their support from the outset. Consider what response you could get by putting forward the proposal and how this may affect any implementation, both negatively and positively.

Carrying out the groundwork to analyse whether moving to a four-day working week will be key. Knowing your potential risk upfront will help you in your decision making on whether you wish to progress with a four-day week.

About the author

Victoria Templeton is the HR Knowledge Manager at HR Solutions, an outsourced HR services firm offering employment related support and advice to businesses across the UK.

See also

Company profiles

How staggered shifts can help your business through COVID-19

How to place staff on short-time working

Five things to consider before making staff redundant

Find out more

Tackling work-related stress using the management standards approach (HSE)

Image: Getty Images

Publication date: 13 July 2020

Any opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and the author alone, and does not necessarily represent that of The Gazette.