A four-day work week may not be the solution to workplace stress that many experts presume, according to research by an academic.
Professor Abigail Marks, who heads the Future of Work project at Newcastle University, said that a four-day work week may not be as helpful and realistic to enact as people think. Her comments came after the SNP Government announced it was setting up a £10 million fund to enable some office businesses to cut workers’ hours without reducing their pay, making Scotland the latest nation to trial the four-day working week. Similar trials are underway in other parts of the world.
Professor Marks wrote in The Conversation that employers are unlikely to be able to afford to reduce each employee’s workload – "particularly after the financial pain of the pandemic".
The average working week in the UK is now 42.5 hours, Marks explained, and the nation is also "the unpaid-overtime capital of Europe". As many as two-thirds of employees are said to work longer than their contracted hours, averaging 6.3 hours of free labour per week, usually sitting in front of a computer or smartphone at home.
This implies that employers will not likely reduce workloads. Many employers signing up for a four-day week would probably expect workers to undertake the same amount of work within four days that was undertaken previously in five, Marks said.
Tackling a 12-hour day
Assuming that the average person is currently spending all of their working hours actively working, doing the same job in four days would mean working over 12 hours a day, which she argued is "clearly not feasible for the majority". Even if it were feasible, "it wouldn’t be very productive".
Research shows that medium-skilled employees who work in front of a computer and work beyond 4.6 effective hours a day produce smaller quantities of output per hour due to fatigue. For inexperienced employees, the numbers are worse. People who work excessively long days also have lower levels of overall wellbeing, Marks said.
While people have been working at home during the pandemic, they have not necessarily been working longer hours but "the hours they have worked have been more intense, with fewer breaks and less movement between tasks and locations".
The result has been "short-term productivity gains, but this shouldn’t be a cause for celebration: with increased work intensity and more porous boundaries between home and work, employees found it difficult to mentally remove themselves from work, further raising the risks of exhaustion". She said that "having to work even more intensively over four days is arguably more than many could cope with".
Impractical for many organisations
Some organisations, Marks argued, might look at practical issues like these and "decline to be part of a four-day work week. Others will say it’s impossible due to the nature of the work (emergency services, medical work and hospitality)".
Many workers will say "it’s unworkable for them due to the volume of work (bank debt collectors, university staff); or because they already work crippling 12-hour shifts and can’t cram more into a day (delivery drivers, many self-employed workers); or don’t earn enough to have the luxury of having three days off each week (care workers, gig-economy workers)".
She concluded: "For most of us, a four-day work week therefore feels more like a pipe dream than a realistic ambition. It will benefit the very few whose organisations can reduce their workload to make it appropriate to four days. This is likely to apply to government workers, since their departments will have to be seen to be a “four-day week success”. But more generally, a four-day week is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities and create resentment against those who get to have a three-day weekend."
Nevertheless, "nearly half of the UK workforce indicating that they are suffering from stress, clearly something has to be done" and workers "need to be working fewer hours, and particularly fewer intense hours".
She called on governments to "focus on ensuring that employees have increased control over the hours that they work, supported by independent bodies that can ensure that businesses uphold good working conditions", and while the UK Government’s Employment Bill was supposed to help in this respect, "it has been controversially delayed by Covid".
She also said some of the answers could lie in making "it affordable for more employees to manage on less" which would require a universal basic income.