The four-day working week continues to gain momentum, with pilots in the UK, Ireland, US, Canada and Australia. Over six-month periods between February and November, employees at participating companies only work 80% of their time, but still receive 100% of their salary and benefits.
These programs, which are spearheaded by the nonprofit coalition 4 Day Week Global, are meant to “benefit everyone” by increasing worker productivity, improving work-life balance and happiness levels, and by reducing unemployment.
But is it too good to be true? Although many companies find this to be a better arrangement than a five-day work week, there are several reasons why the concept requires further research and debate before serious talk is given of rolling it out.
1. The problem of productivity
A four-day week is unlikely to improve productivity unless it is already low. Countries like Ireland and the UK already have very high worker productivity, measured in GDP per hour worked.
Indeed, Ireland’s productivity is among the highest in the world, reaching $125 (9,920 rupees) per hour in 2019 (admittedly skewed somewhat by the presence of more than 1,500 multinationals). And while there’s been a lot of talk about how British productivity is struggling to keep up with other major economies, it’s still very high in aggregate terms at $54 an hour. The equivalent figures from China are $11 (Rs 873) and India $8 (Rs 634).
Even to maintain these levels of productivity while working four days a week, employees would have to dramatically increase output per hour. It’s simply because total GDP will fall if everyone works 20% less. In 1988, Japan shortened the working week from 46 to 30 hours. Productivity did not increase enough to compensate, and economic output between 1988 and 1996 was 20% lower than it otherwise would have been.
Countries like Ireland or the UK may require draconian workplace practices to squeeze enough productivity out of a four-day week, including requiring employees to work longer hours per day than before. . This would increase the risks of excessive stress, industrial accidents, etc.
2. The truth about happiness
Claims that we would all be happier working four days overlook the hedonic treadmill theory, which holds that permanent extra happiness is a mirage. People can feel happiest over, say, a six-month period. But over a longer period of time, they would probably return to their previous level of happiness. In 2000, France reduced the working week from 39 hours to 35 hours in large companies. An evaluation later concluded that it had failed to improve worker happiness.
The hedonic treadmill explains why many retirees return to work or why lottery winners continue in their jobs. Or why, in the case of France, many workers got second jobs or transferred to smaller companies. This is also why, at the very least, we would need to pilot the four-day workweek over periods longer than six months.
Furthermore, there is little evidence of work-life balance crises or job dissatisfaction in Ireland or the UK. According to a 2018 Eurostat survey, 38% of Irish people rated their job satisfaction as ‘high’, the sixth highest in the EU after Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Austria and Switzerland . Job satisfaction in the UK was 29%, still above average. And according to the 2021 UK Census: “Overall, levels of personal wellbeing have increased in the UK.
3. Some will suffer
A four-day work week can worsen inequalities at work. Ireland and the UK already suffer from “depressed” and polarized labor markets, meaning that the proportion of mid-tier jobs to lower-tier jobs has been declining for decades.
The four-day week would lead to a variant of this problem. People already working four days a week – on four days’ pay – would find themselves doing the same job for less pay than those whose working days had just shrunk.
In addition, older workers would potentially be disadvantaged by the need to do more in less time. This is what happened in the United States when the average work week was reduced during the Great Depression from about 48 hours to 41 hours. This should be of concern in Ireland and the UK with their aging populations.
4. Part-time biases
There is a strong association between reduced work hours and increased part-time employment. Indeed, companies whose full-time workers are cutting their hours must hire part-time workers to ensure that production does not drop, especially in the service sector.
Part-time jobs are, however, associated with “low wages and temporary contracts”. A surge in part-time employment would therefore lead to an overall decline in income.
It would also increase job insecurity and could worsen productivity. Although the evidence for productivity is quite limited here, it is unlikely to increase as companies invest less in their part-time workers. This is partly because these workers increase management and transaction costs for businesses.
5. Unemployment benefit?
One of the supposed benefits of shortening the working week is the reduction in unemployment. This is why working weeks were reduced in the United States in the 1930s – which was reasonable, given that unemployment was 25% in 1933.
Today, unemployment in the UK is 3.7%, the lowest in over 20 years. In Ireland, it is 4.7%, while long-term unemployment is negligible at 1.2%. As the irish time recently said: “There are plenty of jobs in Ireland, but where are the workers?”
When labor markets are so tight, it would be strange to reduce the supply of labor by reducing everyone’s working hours (unless, of course, workers manage to be as productive as more than five days). Such a reduction would aggravate labor shortages. It would also squeeze public finances – for example, health services would require more staff, which would increase the wage bill.
A four-day week would also lead to additional demand for leisure services. Imagine wanting to spend your extra time traveling over a long weekend, only to find yourself in long queues at Heathrow or Dublin airports. Oh wait, it’s already happening.
There are other, less risky ways to improve working conditions that may be more effective. These include flexible pension schemes and more official vacation days and public holidays. Or if governments provided better support for innovative entrepreneurs, it could boost productivity growth, job satisfaction and decarbonization all at once.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.