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How do we feel about a four-day work week?
In 2022, around 100 UK companies agreed to trial a four-day working week. By early 2023, over 2,900 employees at 70 organisations – including Marks & Spencer, several banks, breweries and even a few local chippies – were riding the four-day train, and the six-month results looked good.
In February of this year, the trial – which invariably ask workers to spread more hours over fewer days – was heralded as a major breakthrough, with almost all participating companies vowing to continue the new way of working. Various think-tanks have chimed in to report the positives for all parties. From boosting worker wellbeing to tackling climate change, a four-day week can, it seems, spread a whole lot of good.
The World Economic Forum, for example, lauded the potential for four-day weeks to be an antidote to worker absenteeism and burnout, while participating companies are said to now have an edge in recruiting and retaining top talent.
It all sounds good until a few inevitables crop up: a four-day week won’t suit all jobs, workers or industries. The emergency services, transport and logistics industries, for instance, don’t take days off, so workers will either have to stick with the status quo, or new blood will need to plug gaps. That’s much easier said than done. Expensive, too.
Where did 5/2 come from anyway?
In western countries at least, the five-on-two-off pattern centres around religion. Circa 200 years ago, Christian workers got Sunday off, and 20th century Jewish textile workers later negotiated their Sabbath Saturdays off too. Interestingly, the weekend only arrived in Britain in 1929.
Modern history tends to credit Henry Ford for the 40-hour work week over five days, but most scholars note he established this pattern not out of altruism but due to worker pressure and a jarring realisation …
Ford calculated that ordinary Americans would only buy his cars if they a) could afford them and, crucially, b) had time to drive them. Fair point …
What do Brits reckon to the four-day week?
Revisionist history over, then, and for Health, Wealth & Happiness 2023, LifeSearch asked workers in our representative nationwide survey how they feel about working a four-day week.
You may suspect it’d be slam-drunk-endorsements for the 4/3, but that’s not quite the case. The positivity is there, but it’s laced with more than a dose of scepticism …
In the nationwide sample, roughly two in three Brits are advocates for the four-day week. Some 59% of workers say that 4/3 would work in their current job and 69% say it’d boost employee wellbeing. A majority of 58% of us think businesses would be able to maintain the same productivity with 4/3 as they currently enjoy with 5/2.
The young believe in 4/3 … ish
On the flip-side, nearly one in four (23%) people say a four-day week would add stress to their lives, while exactly one in four (25%) go further and say it’d have a negative impact on the UK economy. Rising again, 39% say the concept is unfair and the same proportion believe a 4/3 week would unfairly benefit higher-earners.
It’s fair to say the younger portion of the workforce is most positive about the potential of a 4/3 week, with nearly three quarters (71%) of those under 55 saying employee wellbeing will increase should the country make the move.
Nearly two-thirds (65%) of 18-34s believe businesses would be just as productive in a 4/3 pattern, which is a view less shared by less than half (49%) the older population (55+). Older workers, in fact, are most likely to say the 4/3 week is unfair because not all workers can participate (46%).
So there are big doubts, and the youngest portion of the workforce has them too. UK 18-34-year-olds are most likely to say that 4/3 will add to their work stress (27%), while nearly half (48%) of the same age group – and way more than the national average – believe four-day weeks would chiefly benefit higher earners.
Interestingly, more younger workers may be willing to negotiate down their salary in exchange for 4/3. The difference isn’t huge but only two thirds (67%) of 18-34s say they’d expect the same wages for 4/3, while more 35-54-year-olds (71%) expect pay to stay the same for 4/3 as 5/2.
Females keen, high-earners tepid
It’s interesting that females are substantially more enthused by the idea of 4/3 than males, with three-quarters (75%) of females advocating the move would be better for employee wellbeing versus less than two-thirds (64%) of males.
Females are much more likely to believe business productivity would stay the same at 4/3 and, interestingly, females much more than males would expect their pay to remain the same if 5/2 became 4/3.
Across various demographics there’s a prevailing sense that a four-day week would benefit higher earners most. To be fair, it’s not a massive leap to reach that conclusion and, indeed, the data confirms that the more one earns the more likely they are to say a 4/3 dynamic would work for them in their job role.
But what’s interesting is that higher earners (£60,000+) are more sceptical of some aspects of 4/3. When a person earns under £30,000 per year, they seem more convinced by worker wellbeing and economic arguments than those in the higher-earning brackets.
Some 62% of average earners agree that 4/3 will maintain business productivity but fewer higher earners share this confidence (56%).
What’d we do with the extra day?
When asked what we’d do with the extra day, assuming we still earn the same salary, spending time with family is top of Britain’s list.
But there’s a huge but. While nearly half of all females (48%) would spend it with family and friends, less than one-third of all males say the same (31%). In fact, how men would spend their extra day is a toss-up between family (31%), and hobbies (31%), with sports and exercise a close second (28%).
As if to bay to stereotypes, 37% of females say they’d spend the extra day catching up on chores compared to just 17% of males. Also interesting is that roughly the same proportions of males and females say they’d spend their extra day on a side hustle.
Looking at the data by age, the desire to spend time with family is more prevalent the older one gets. Funnily enough, the desire to spend more time on hobbies also rises with age, yet for 35-54s it’d also be a vital opportunity to catch up on sleep (20%) and do the housework (31%).
Side hustles in Scotland, sleep in the North West
Pulling on the regional variations, the Scots are pretty turned on by the idea of side hustles (17%), the North East is most eager to put extra hours into relationships (47%), and in Yorkshire it’s about catching up on chores (31%).
Sleep is big on the list in the North West (23%) and, interestingly, Londoners are most enthused by the idea of having more time to watch TV and play video games (24%).
Staying with screen time and it’s fascinating that those who already rack up a lot of hours of screen time per day particularly relish the prospect of even more.
The desire to use extra time in a 4/3 week to watch TV and play games gets higher and higher the more hours one already spends at a screen.
Speaking of which, there’s much more on Health, Wealth & Happiness in the UK in 2023, so make sure to stick around the LifeSearch hub and maybe let us know on social: what’d you do with an extra day off each week?
Sophie began as a Protection Adviser at LifeSearch in 2017, helping customers to Protect the lives they love. She now brings her experience to Protection Content within the Marketing team. Sophie’s a passionate Street Dance teacher in her spare time, and teaches children and adults all the right moves.See all articles by Sophie Cussons
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