As Scots head to the polls on 6 May, the question of independence will be high on voters’ list of priorities. As the Scottish National Party (SNP) unveiled their manifesto this month, however, another talking point emerged.
In March, Spain announced that it was set to follow New Zealand and Germany by trialling a move to a four-day week.
Now, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has promised that, if re-elected, she will make £10 million available for Scottish companies to trial – and measure the benefits of – a four-day week in Scotland too.
What are the benefits of a four-day working week? What is the impact on productivity? And what does a shift in employment pattern mean for your work-life balance?
Trials of the four-day week are underway, while some have already become permanent
Trials are already underway in New Zealand, where Unilever is five months into a year-long test. Its employees will earn their full salary while working one day less a week.
Back in 2018, New Zealand-based will-writing firm Perpetual Guardian trialled their own four-day week. They reported a 20% rise in productivity, as well as improved staff wellbeing, and went on to make the move permanent.
Andrew Barnes, the founder of Perpetual Guardian, confirmed the trial wasn’t just about having an extra day off each week. It was about “delivering productivity and meeting customer service standards, meeting personal and team business goals and objectives.”
In 2019, Microsoft announced that it had experimented with a four-day working week at one of its Japanese subsidiaries. The company saw a 40% rise in productivity. The Guardian confirms that during the trial staff absence reduced by 25% and electricity usage dropped by 23%.
Further trials could be on the way in Europe. Last year, the head of Germany’s largest trade union, IG Metall, suggested that a four-day week could help an automotive industry struggling with digitisation and the move to electric vehicles.
A shorter week could improve productivity, wellbeing, and lessen environmental impacts
It is acknowledged that overwork can lead to a decrease in total output. But can working fewer hours actually increase productivity?
Both Perpetual Guardian and Microsoft Japan reported an increased output when they cut working hours.
Managing director of Unilever New Zealand, Nick Bangs, has said that the experiment at his multinational brand is about changing “how work is done”. Employees working longer hours during the four days they are in the office – in effect, making up for the lost day – would “miss the point,” he said.
More companies trialling a four-day week could lead to innovations in working practice, making the shift to a shorter week manageable for more companies, while boosting overall productivity.
Reduced stress and a better work-life balance
Decreasing the likelihood of overwork can reduce stress, resulting in fewer days off sick and happier and more committed staff. Microsoft saw a 25% reduction in time off and Perpetual Guardian noted a marked decrease in employee stress levels.
A shorter working week can also lead to a better work-life balance.
Our World in Data used figures for Gross Domestic Product per hour to measure productivity per country. Norway ranked as the second most productive country in the world while having the third shortest working week.
A positive work-life balance is highly valued in Norway and the Scandinavian approach to managing work versus home life could be adopted elsewhere if working weeks are shortened.
Reduced carbon footprint
According to Greenpeace, a four-day working week could help the environment through reduced emissions, thanks to fewer commuters. The move to working from home caused by the pandemic – but predicted to remain in place for many businesses – may already have helped to partially prove this point.
Greenpeace found in May 2020, that a national four-day working week means UK workers would drive 558 million miles less per week. They also point to the health benefits of lower emissions and the reduction of stress caused by sitting in traffic.
Microsoft saw a reduction in electricity usage at its Japan office, but it is important to remember that what you do during your extra day off will also affect the environment.
Spend the day exercising or enjoying nature and the benefits are clear. Opt for a short-haul flight or take your car to a track day and you could increase the size of your carbon footprint.
Businesses will need to think carefully
There are several downsides to the four-day working work.
Certain industries will lend themselves to decreased hours better than others. Those built around a 9-to-5, five-day week could make the shift more easily than a coach hire company, for example.
Even within an industry where a four-day week is achievable, the process would require industry-wide commitment to be effective. Closing for a day on which your competitors stay open will be an unappealing prospect for many businesses.
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While trials are ongoing in New Zealand and Spain, it remains to be seen what the Scottish people will decide on 6 May. If Nicola Sturgeon is re-elected, a successful Scottish trial could provide a roadmap for a UK-wide four-day week in the near future.