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How the Four-Day Work Week Experiments Are Going in the Countries That Have Trialled Them

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The four-day work week is an idea that’s been around for a while now.

Touted as a panacea for all of the modern-day ills of burnout, work-life imbalance, and general dissatisfaction with the workday schedule, the concept essentially cuts a day from our schedules, giving us more free time.

It’s considered the natural next step in the long march for workers’ rights and the balance between labour and life that has been steadily moving forward over the last few hundred years.

There are a few ways to cut it; the same hours over four days, reduced hours in total, or shift work that would see all bases covered and have employees work on a reduced-hours contract on alternating shifts. These combinations can also come with reduced pay or the same pay, depending on how the organisation wants to do it.

Mainly, when we talk about the four-day work week, we mean four days of work across the usual five, taking the working week from 40 hours to 32. This would, ideally, come without a loss to productivity, and be paid at the same rate as the present.

It sounds utopian, but studies and trials have been run on this for years now, with many of them showing good results. Productivity remains the same, while worker retention, happiness, and quality of life go up.

Several large-scale trials have recently begun to further test these ideas, with the UK launching a 3,000 person trial at 60 companies this week — the largest of anywhere in the world. Thirty-eight companies across North America have also launched similar trials this week too.

While it’s going to take a while (read: years) to get the data on these trials properly analysed and accounted for, there are already a number of trials that have been ongoing for some time or have been completed.

Here’s what the data of the upcoming trials are likely to show, based on those that have gone before.

The Four Day Work Week Trials

Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland conducted the largest four-day work week trial, cutting 2,500 individuals hours from 40 to 35 or 36 over the four-year period.

These people were followed by the British think tank Autonomy and the Icelandic non-profit group, Association for Sustainability and Democracy.

In the end, it was hailed as an overwhelming success. Workers reported lower levels of stress and burnout, while saying that they felt a marked improvement in their work-life balance.

The trial eventually led to almost the entire country having its working hours cut, with 90% of Icelanders now working 35-36 hour weeks.

When Sweden trialled something similar amongst healthcare workers in 2015, they found the same thing. This was five days of six hours per day, instead of eight, however, there was a lot of criticism at the time surrounding the cost of the experiment. The workers were returned to their normal schedules and there have been no plans yet to make the changes permanent.

Microsoft famously tried a four-day work week in Japan in 2019 which, counterintuitively, saw production increase by 40%. While the country is toying with the idea, there are no concrete plans yet to expand the practice and Microsoft workers continued with their five-day work week.

Unilever are also currently testing a four-day work week in New Zealand, although there have been no updates about the trial so far.

Typically, it’s smaller businesses and startups that implement the practice. Those that do, report great results. In the UK, Target Publishing was forced to cut staff pay and hours for its 30 employees during the first COVID lockdown. When the business stabilised, they returned everyone’s salary to their normal levels but kept the reduced hours.

The founder and owner of the company said that he was amazed by how much better everyone felt, and how much more productive they all seemed.

“Of course there were teething problems, but we found meetings were much shorter and we looked at the way staff worked and what they did much more closely to achieve significant efficiencies,” David Cann told The Guardian.

“And from a mental health point of view, we see huge benefits and because everyone wants it to work, you get an upside in higher profits.”

Closer to home, one family in NSW has been reported to have negotiated four days with their employers. They’ve taken a pay cut, but they say that the trade-off is worth it.

Paul and Leearne Di Michiel moved from Sydney to the Upper Hunter Valley after the death of Shane Warne. They said that the tragedy was a wake up call that time is short, life precious, and there is more to life than work.

“You don’t want to work your entire life and then drop dead. You want to have that quality time as well and stop to smell the roses,” Paul said, noting that he is certain he’s made the right choice.

It’s not always plain sailing though. Some who have made similar switches have said that they’re compromising on career goals, as their employers do not always take the view that their lack of hours is actually better for their productivity. Others have reported that the requirement to do the same amount of work in fewer hours has made the four-day work week a far less relaxing change than they anticipated.

Those issues aside, and to hell with waiting on the results of ongoing trials, Belgium has forged ahead and given everyone the right to choose to work a four-day week if they want. Last month, the small European nation announced a series of reforms in February that would enshrine the rights of workers to a four-day week and force employers not to contact their staff on their days off.

It’s a bold move, and while not all the kinks have been worked out of this new approach to labour and employment, it seems like the shift to more flexible working options is here to stay.

Study after study has shown that Aussies are increasingly seeking employment where flexibility is ensured. This trend has been super charged by the pandemic and the working from home mandates that proved many jobs can be done just as effectively remote.

While Australia is far from making any of these changes in a meaningful way, the fact that the idea has grown so rapidly over the past few years is a testament to the fact that conventions around work is not a finished conversation — and one we’ll likely be having for a long time to come.

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