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The proposal of a four-day working week is a progressive idea as since 1926, employees in Britain have been working a five-day working week with Saturday and Sunday marked as the ‘weekend’, allocating a two-day break from working life.

During the 1900s, pioneering car maker, Henry Ford, cemented the above measure by closing his factory doors on Saturday and Sunday. Factory work was prevalent during this period as the motor industry began to boom and staple its position in the British economy.

In 1998, the Working Times Regulation was introduced into UK legislation limiting the average maximum hours in a week to no more than 48 hours; however, you can opt-out of the 48-hour limit if your career path doesn’t require you to abide by this.  Prior to the standardization of the five-day working week, the norm was to work six days a week which shows a gradual shift in mentality and consideration towards the way employees live their lives.

Microsoft Japan Trials Four-day Working Week

Over 100 years later, selective household names are pushing the tide towards a shorter working week with no decrease in pay to test if this boosts productivity and improves wellbeing. Microsoft, the multinational, technological corporation recently trialed a four-day working week in their Japan office throughout August by giving employees consecutive Fridays off, without a decrease in pay, as part of their ‘Work-Life Choice Challenge’’.

The typical working week in Japan is made up of six days with workers carrying out 12-hour shifts, however, this can vary from five days to well over six days. Worlds apart from the working practices followed in the UK, Japanese labor law actually states that employees should only work 40 hours a week.

Many employee cases of sudden death are attributed to ‘Karoshi’, meaning ‘death from overwork’ in Japanese. Exhaustion and stress following uncapped overtime is often the leading cause of heart attack and stroke in Japan, as illustrated in the case of the broadcaster, Miwa Sado. She worked over 150 hours in the month leading up to her death, taking off just two days before dying of congestive heart failure.

45 hours in overtime is allowed in one month but as this is only a recommendation, it is therefore non-binding. The toxic work culture in Japan is one of concern, as in many cases, the norm is to work unpaid overtime to fulfill employer expectations without kicking up a fuss.

Microsoft Japan found that after trialing a four day week, sales per employee rose by 40 percent across their 2,300 person workforce. Following the trial, it was found that 92 percent of employees responded positively to the shorter working week. This also contributed to a decrease in resource-related costs, such as electricity, which is financially beneficial for the business.  

As face time with employees decreased following the reduction of one day, meetings were limited to 30 minutes, encouraging team members to work more efficiently and constructively with one another. 

The Downfall of a Four-day Working Week

In reality, compressing five days’ work into four days can pose a great deal of pressure on your physical and mental health, triggering exhaustion, demotivation and a lack of gratification from your job as a result of heightened expectations. However, if you’re more satisfied, happy and less stressed, this improvement to your wellbeing could outweigh the compression of five days’ work into four.

As your business adapts to this forward-thinking strategy, will others follow suit? It’s vital to question whether your customer base will understand this approach or reject it and turn to a traditionally operating competitor which better suits their needs. This brings into question how the business integrates into the market alongside key competitors offering longer opening times and greater exposure to staff and key account holders.

In an age of digital storytelling, consumers are increasingly buying with a purpose from ethically, eco-friendly and moral conscious brands.

The first step to granting customers the opportunity to shop ethically is to work in a transparent manner which also includes the fair treatment of staff. As an active promoter of flexible working, this has the power to attract new talent and bolster the reputation of the business.

For example, following the revelation in 2008 a fast fashion market leader, Primark, used child labor practices to produce clothing and Nike produced big label products in sweatshops, concerned consumers led a series of boycotts which contributed to the reputational damage of the business.

In reverse, promoting workers’ rights and introducing modern working methods can improve your reputation and perception of the brand, possibly resulting in stronger financial performance.

Why Boosting Morale Is Better for the Business?

By boosting employee morale through flexible working, this encourages employee productivity which contributes to cost savings for the business and reduces the carbon footprint as fewer resources will be used.

A white paper produced by Henley Business School on adopting a four-day working week found that there are major cost savings for businesses that adopt this operational strategy. The white paper found that businesses operating on a four-day basis made the ‘combined savings…as high as £92 billion a year, 2% of total annual turnover.’

In conclusion, the decision to take this step ultimately depends on your sector, client expectations and the effect this will have on business operations. As popularity garners for the non-traditional working week, the Labour party went a step further to propose a four-day working week to ‘lay the foundations of a new society’ in their election manifesto last year.  

By reducing work-related mental strain and enforcing a shorter working week, this can improve employee wellness, reduce retention levels and standardize a new way of working.

Tackling Unemployment With a Shorter Working Week

A report by the think-tank, Autonomy, on the radical approach of a shorter working week was endorsed by John McDonnell, Labour Shadow Chancellor, who commented:

“This is a vital contribution to the growing debate around free time and reducing the working week. With millions saying they would like to work shorter hours, and millions of others without a job or wanting more hours, it’s essential that we consider how we address the problems in the labor market as well as preparing for the future challenges of automation.”

A shorter working week can help reduce unemployment and unlock numerous jobs for those without jobs, further cutting employment levels which were last recorded at 3.8% for the period between September and November 2019. This future proofs the UK economy by nurturing a nation of happier workers who are more satisfied having achieved an improved work-life balance through a shorter working week.  

As the challenges relating to automation loom closer, the displacement of jobs is an inevitable associated result which will force job losses due to the economic shift. There is clear evidence which indicates this; however, this may also pave the way to the creation of a different line of jobs.

A McKinsey report on ‘Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained’, found that ‘between 400 million and 800 million individuals could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030 around the world. Of the total displaced, 75 million to 375 million may need to switch occupational categories and learn new skills.’  

The report looks at the opportunities that arrive with automation, in addition to the jobs that will be dissolved following the arrival of automation.

As John McDonnell pointed out, a loss of jobs as a result of automation may result in a surge in unemployment; however, this could be balanced by switching occupations or re-educating the workforce so they can acquire a new set of skills which complement automation. This could help faster-growing countries; however it could also stall the development of slower-moving, poorer countries as would have less investment to spend on education, upgrading equipment to allow for automation and operational flexibility for a shorter working week initiative.

Maintaining Personal Wellbeing With a Shorter Working Week

On the topic of mental health, personal satisfaction and wellbeing, Labour MP, Clive Lewis, commented on the study by Autonomy:

“As this report demonstrates, working less may actually be the key to better distributed, sustainable economic prosperity. Working fewer hours, reducing consumption for its own sake, expanding our free time, improving ourselves and moving towards a more post-material society may be all that stands between a prosperous future and a dark, dystopian one.”

In a world where there is more awareness around mental health, the integration of openly talking about mental health in the workplace is happening steadily. There are dedicated charities that can assist you in balancing your work-life pressures with personal life, such as MIND, who also offer training.

A shorter working week is a universal measure that could relieve many of mental pressure, therefore increasing retention rates and productivity. As a result of increased satisfaction at work, this could reduce absences, both long term and short term as staff could take sufficient breathing space outside of work, helping to destress and motivate.

Economic Effects of a Shorter Working Week

Strategies mitigating climate change, global warming and protecting the natural environment are increasingly moving higher up the agenda for businesses. It’s no surprise that countries are gearing up their environmental strategies in an attempt to act in a more eco-friendly manner.

As the start of 2020 was marked by the devastating Australian Bushfires, the record-breaking wildfire was responsible for the death of millions of animals, raising the air quality level in Sydney to 11 times the hazardous level, an event that puts the climate crisis into perspective.

Looking closely at the carbon footprint of UK businesses, many have put strategies in place to achieve carbon neutrality or significantly reduce carbon emissions.

For example, Lloyds Banking Group recently pledged to half carbon emissions that it finances over a period of ten years. As the UK economy takes a deeper interest in cutting emissions, the first port of call is an action for businesses.

A shorter working week can help cut emissions due to reduced office opening hours and the drop in electricity and heating usage. By implementing an eco-friendly initiative in the workplace, this can encourage ethically conscious employees to emotionally invest in this area of the businesses, providing opportunities for them to work collaboratively by sharing new initiatives and developing a stronger, more personal connection with the business.

On the whole, if employees have a reason to emotionally involve themselves with the business, their compassion and motivation could rub off on other employees, creating a pleasant work environment. By promoting a team effort and feeling a general likeness for the business, this could help attract clients due to the enthusiasm and strong belief that this represents in the leadership.

On the other hand, if there’s negativity, this can easily cause friction between employees, dropping retention rates which could affect the financial performance of the business and team morale.

Boosting workplace productivity with a shorter working week is an instrumental tool that can increase the happiness of your workforce, shining into their personal life. The benefits can spread widely across the business; however business owners should take into consideration the extra pressure this puts on employees if the expectations achieved within a five day week are applied to a shorter four-day working week.

 If the results show that productivity rises as shown in the Microsoft study, this supports your argument for a four-day working week, however, you may decide to set a trial period before considering enforcing it full time.

Written By
John Baird is a partner at Scotland Debt Solutions, offering a range of debt solutions to residents in Scotland suffering from personal debt problems. This includes Sequestration, Trust Deeds and Debt Arrangement Schemes which our expert advisors can thoroughly advise you on over the phone through our free, confidential advice line or at one of our dedicated offices across Scotland.

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