Responding to a recession in the early 1990s, the public sector in the Netherlands began offering a four-day week to staff to save money. Since then it has spread and become common employment practice, with the option offered to workers in all sectors of the economy.
As a result, job-sharing has become the norm in the health and education sectors. It is common to have part-time surgeons, engineers and bankers making the much hyped work-life balance in modern industrial economies a practical reality. It’s not just Northern Europe that’s seen the benefits of shorter working weeks. In the United States, in the midst of the financial crisis in 2008 – faced with recession, rapidly rising energy prices, growing lines at food banks, rising unemployment and mortgage foreclosures – instead of simply bringing a knife to public spending and pushing austerity measures, Jon Hunstman, Utah’s Republican governor, surprised people with an experiment to save money. At only a month’s notice, 18,000 of the state’s 25,000 workforce were put on a four-day week and around 900 public buildings closed on Fridays. Since then, the idea has taken hold in some parts of the private sector – in particular, for office work where people are not providing regular, time-sensitive services that need to be available every day.
The idea of a shorter working week has been a long-standing aim of social progressives and one that has developed despite, rather than because, of the predictions of economists. The weekend has extended, thanks to social pressure on employers, from a half day to one and a half days, and finally to two days. J.M. Keynes predicted that with the logic of progressive economic, social and technological developments, by the 21st Century we would be working typically just a 15-hour week. The rest of our time would be devoted to the art of living. But instead of productivity leading to economic benefits liberating people from labour, in industrialised countries a combination of inequality and consumer culture has resulted instead in a combination of overconsumption and precarious work for many on low pay and long hours.
The advent of zero-hour contracts, all in the name of flexibility, threaten to remove even historically hard-won time off. In practice, time off has normally come via decisions by the church (Saints days) or by legislation, like Sir John Lubbock’s Bank Holidays Act in 1872. Now, however, interest in shifting to the norm of a shorter working week is rising again. Partly this is in response to economic necessity, but partly also through active choice and the discovery by both employers and employees of mutual benefits. Redistribution of paid work tackles the twin problems of overwork and unemployment, broadening access to the good things of being in work whilst moderating the worst aspects. Changes need to be backed however by supporting measures such as there being proper child care services available, affordable housing and living wages.
In the Netherlands the shift created conditions for greater equality at home and in the workplace between men and women. In the Utah experiment, it led to lower staff absentee rates, higher staff morale, an improvement in public experience of services and a significant carbon reduction resulting from closing buildings and using much of the vehicle fleet for one less day per week.
The main context for this kind of experiment is usually the need to save money, as in the case of Utah, or to save energy as in the case of the emergency Three Day Week, enacted by the UK Heath government in 1973-4. While it lasted, there were only marginal falls in production, confirming other cases which suggest that the benefits of working fewer hours can easily outweigh the challenges of making the transition – and helps demonstrate that people compensate for the time off, either because they are less jaded or exhausted or because they believe in what they are doing.
This is particularly true for office jobs, which are today a growing part of the global economy. Over the course of an eight-hour workday, the average employee works for about three hours — two hours and 53 minutes, to be more precise. The rest of the time, according to a 2016 survey of 1,989 UK office workers, people spend on a combination of reading the news, browsing social media, eating food, socialising about non-work topics, taking smoke breaks, and searching for new jobs (presumably, to pick up the same habits in a different office). The research has been clear for a while that long workdays hardly get the best from people. Some research has found people can only concentrate for about 20 minutes at a time.
Almost certainly, this transition has come about because people have complex lives and they want to work more flexibly. The Dutch example saw one in three men either work part time or compress their hours, working five days in four to enjoy a three-day weekend. Three quarters of women now work part time. The popularity of the different pattern is such that 96 percent of part time workers do not want to work longer hours. In Utah, eight out of ten employees liked the introduction of the 4 day working week and wanted it to continue. Nearly two thirds said it made them more productive, and many said it reduced conflict both at home and at work. Workplaces across the state reported higher staff morale and lower absenteeism. There were other surprises. One in three among the public thought the new arrangements actually improved access to services. It wasn’t the main objective, but at a stroke the four-day week also reduced carbon emissions by 14 percent, a huge annual saving. In a sign of the growing appeal of the idea, in 2013, the Gambia also introduced a four-day week.
In the Netherlands, the take up and re-arrangement of public sector working took place very quickly, to keep institutions open. The private sector has been slower, but now has the same benefits. Dutch laws promote a work-life balance and protect part-time workers. All workers there are entitled to fully paid vacation days, maternity and paternity leave. A law passed in 2000 also gives workers the right to reduce their hours to a part-time schedule, while keeping their job, hourly pay, health care and pro-rated benefits. Overall, the entire workforce averages around 29 hours a week – the lowest of any industrialized nation, according to the OECD.
Even though hugely popular, the experiment in Utah fell victim at the state level to a change of administration in 2011. Those wanting to revert to the 5-day system pointed to complaints from the public about services not being available, and falling energy prices that meant savings were not as high as predicted. However, many cities retained the 4-day week for local offices. In Provo, Utah, one of the state’s largest cities with more than 100,000 people, the four-day workweek has been in place for years, with city offices open Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Provo Mayor John Curtis believed the 4/10 system improved employee morale and saved money. Interestingly, when state employees were forced to return to work on Fridays, many of them gave up voluntary work they had taken up on their “free” day – a factor that was not considered in the decision to revert to a 5-day week.
In the private sector, it is mainly service industry companies that have found benefits in a 4-day week. The New Zealand law firm Perpetual Guardian moved to a 4-day week and reported their workers said the change motivated them to find ways of increasing their productivity while in the office. Meetings were reduced from two hours to 30 minutes, and employees created signals for their colleagues that they needed time to work without distraction. The company’s founder said he believed his was the first business in the world to pay staff for 40 hours when working 32; other firms have allowed employees to work shorter weeks by compressing the standard 40 hours into fewer days, or allowed people to work part-time for a reduced salary. He was inspired by a report that suggested people spent less than three hours of their work day productively employed, and that distractions at work could have effects on staff akin to losing a night’s sleep.
However, there is still some clash between the feeling that more hours should be squashed into fewer days, and a deeper understanding of how productivity works. A 2019 April survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in the US reported that 15% of organizations offer 4-day working weeks of 32 hours or less to at least some employees, up from 13% in 2017. But a poll in 2018 by staffing firm Robert Half found that 17% of companies had compressed work weeks that squeeze the same number of hours into fewer days. There are also questions about parity – could those doing physical work or offering services that must be available every day get left behind, creating a 2-tier workforce?