Last month a report was published presenting the results of a well-publicised pilot of the four-day workweek in the UK. If you’re interested in reading it for yourself, you can download it here.
The pilot featured 61 companies and 2,900 workers in the UK from June to December 2022. The press coverage was gushing, with the Guardian hailing the initiative as a ‘major breakthrough’ with most of the firms who participated choosing to extend the trial.
It all sounds great, doesn’t it? Not so fast… Some more nuanced findings emerge if you bypass the report’s executive summary and personal stories.
Does working time really decrease?
One of the main expectations of shifting to a four-day week is that it reduces working time. Technically, this claim is valid according to the pilot data. 71% of participants reported a decline in working hours. However, the average number of days worked only declined by 4.86 to 4.52 days. This is equivalent to working ~2.6 hours less, so still a long way off a true four-day week. Notably, 13% of the participants experienced no change in working time, despite the initiative, and 15% worked more!
What about the effect on stress?
But how did people feel about the pilot? The media reporting includes several anecdotes from employees stating that the shift to a four-day workweek improved various measures of wellbeing. There are some data to support this. Based on a 5-point self-report survey, the average frequency of work stress decreased from 3.07 before to 2.74 after the trial. However, 13% of employees experienced increased stress, and 48% reported no change in stress levels. Less than half of the participants (48%) said they were more satisfied than when they started.
Do the results apply to any organisation?
Finally, it’s essential to consider how generalisable the pilot results are to other organisations. Many of the companies in the trial were very small businesses. 66% had fewer than 25 employees, for example. Also, a wide range of companies was represented in the trial, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the effect on productivity and performance in different sectors.
So, what should we do?
My conclusion is that the trial is interesting, but we shouldn’t be too hasty to try to implement the results. We also need to be careful not to fall victim to ‘confirmation bias’ based on compelling anecdotes in our eagerness to find solutions to the very real health and wellbeing problems in the workplace. Based on this trial, the positive benefits are small and certainly not universal. Also, the potential up-sides should be weighed against the disruption associated with a shift to a 4-day week, particularly as some people reported some significant adverse impacts.
More research is needed, with a particular focus on understanding how the characteristics of different types of businesses, people’s roles in those businesses and individual differences make four-day weeks work better or worse. While it will not be possible in every workplace, ideally, we would find a way for people to make data-informed decisions about which working pattern will work best for their wellbeing and performance.