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Is the four-day work week a novel phenomenon for the modern workforce?

By Marc Bishop
UK Partner at HR Path

The UK is nearing the conclusion of the world’s largest four-day work week trial…. This blog examines the history of the working week and summarizes the trial’s main findings.

The idea of reducing the working week from five to four days is getting traction in many developed countries. The working idea is that employees will switch to fewer but more productive hours, ensuring that companies do not lose productivity.

Before delving into the pros and drawbacks of changing the working week, let us take a step back in time to see how we arrived at the current 5-day work week.

Prior to the nineteenth century, most people in the United Kingdom worked a six-day week and took Sunday off as a day of leisure. For those who did not observe religious (Christian) principles on their day of rest, many employers discovered that their employees returned to work on Monday often with hangovers from the day before, and productivity plummeted!

The Early Closing Association was founded in 1842 as a campaign organization. It lobbied the government to retain Saturday afternoons free for employee recreation in exchange for a full day’s work on Monday. The organization created branches in important manufacturing towns, and its membership included local civic elites, manufacturers, and clergy. Employers were encouraged to implement half-day Saturdays, arguing that it would promote a more sober and productive workforce on the following full day of work (Monday).

It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the 5-day working week idea gained traction. In 1914, Henry Ford is widely recognized with establishing the 40-hour, five-day work week. This isn’t completely correct, as a New England mill became the first American factory to implement the five-day week several years earlier (in 1908). It did so to accommodate Jewish employees, whose observance of a Saturday sabbath required them to make up their work on Sundays, which irritated some members of the Christian majority. The mill gave these Jewish employees a two-day holiday, and other factories followed suit. Shorter hours were seen as a cure for underemployment during the Great Depression, which entrenched the two-day weekend into the economy.

So here we are, more than a century later, considering the prospect of a four-day work week. Before delving into the results of the UK trial, consider the possible benefits and drawbacks.


Employees who are happier

According to the studies so far, one of the obvious benefits is that employees are happier having a four-day week. Maintaining good mental health benefits businesses, but it also gives workers more time to concentrate on things they enjoy doing, such as learning a new skill, engaging in a pastime, spending time with loved ones, or better caring for elderly relatives or young dependents.

Reduced health problems and absences

Having happy workers usually means having fewer health problems. One out of every six employees will have bad mental health, and stress can often manifest physically. Stress, depression, or anxiety accounted for 50% of all work-related ill health instances in 2020/21, according to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Increased output

According to productivity research conducted by Stanford University, overworked employees are less productive. Norway, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands have a working week that is 27 hours long on average.

Retention and recruitment

It goes without saying that this is a fantastic benefit to implement for current employees and would be extremely appealing to any potential candidates seeking to join the company. It is an excellent retention aid.

Equality is being promoted

According to UK Government Equalities Office research on the Gender Pay Gap, approximately two million British people are presently unemployed due to childcare obligations, with 89% of these people being women. A four-day work week may allow some of those people to better balance their families and job commitments, making them more likely to be employed.


There is no such thing as one size fits all

One obvious disadvantage is that a four-day week will simply not work for every company. Introducing a four-day week requires adapting the entire operation to this way of working, which may be impossible for businesses that need to operate around the clock without careful planning and additional resources. It should be mentioned that one of the UK trial companies was a customer-facing organization that annualized the working hours to vary working patterns based on seasonality of customer demand while maintaining a four-day working week.

Longer labor hours may result

Many employees may be expected to work extra hours on the four days they are working to free up one day of time. This could negate the productivity advantage by putting workers under more pressure to perform their duties / complete their tasks in less time. This could influence both stress and efficiency.

Productivity loss

While some studies show that working a four-day week increases workplace productivity, it can also have the opposite impact in some cases. Working only four days per week, for example, may contribute to complacency in some employees. In essence, some bad employees may take the new work arrangement for granted and become less committed to the job, putting in less effort to help the business succeed.

The results of the UK study

The organizations that took part came from a variety of industries:

  • There were eight companies in the marketing and advertising sector, seven in professional services, 
  • Five in the charity and non-profit sector,
  • And firms in education, finance, healthcare, and online retail.

Most businesses chose to offer all their employees Fridays off, while others said they could take Monday or Friday off, and still others said there was no common day off for all employees.

The trial results have been released, and they demonstrate some quite amazing benefits, as follows.

  • 39% of workers who took part in the trial reported feeling less stressed than before the trial began.
  • When compared to the same time last year, there has been a 57% decrease in the number of workers leaving participating organizations.
  • Anxiety, trouble sleeping, and burnout were significantly reduced, and more staff stated that balancing care responsibilities had become easier.
  • Company revenue grew by 1.4% on average during the trial period, but by 35% when compared to the same six-month period in 2021.

Final observations

The UK trial of 3,000 employees from 56 organizations was conducted under the assumption that 100% of the usual work had to be done for 100% of the compensation but in 80% of the time.

The trial demonstrated that the advantages of a shorter work week for no pay loss are well established. Employees are happier and more engaged, which has resulted in quantifiable business outcomes such as increased revenue and decreased employee turnover.

If this is something you would like to explore with your organization, please contact us at HR-Path via the form below as we can assist you in implementing a trial. You could also look at our SME service offering here.

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