A trial involving nearly 3,000 workers has found working shorter hours makes staff happier and healthier.
Faye Johnson-Smith thought it was too good to be true when her boss said she could have every Wednesday off without a cut in her pay.
Her employer was taking part in a six-month trial, testing the costs and benefits of a four-day week.
Like most of the workers involved, Faye found she was healthier and happier as a result of working shorter hours.
But at the end of the trial almost all the 61 employers involved were also keen to keep the new work pattern.
The scheme, which took place between June and December 2022, involved organisations across the UK from a brewery to a fish and chip shop, software developers to recruitment firms.
A report assessing its impact has found it had “extensive benefits” particularly for employees’ well-being.
Its authors argue it could herald a shift in attitudes, so that before long we could all see a mid-week break or a three-day weekend as normal.
Faye works as a supervisor for Citizen Advice in Gateshead where around 200 staff took part in the scheme.
She says having the extra day off gives her time to “recover and recuperate”.
As a result, she arrives back at work “ready to hit the ground running” and, she reckons, achieves as much, if not more, in her four days than she used to in five.
Her colleague, Bethany Lawson, says she finds her team easier to manage now most of them are on a four-day week, leaving her more time to get on, and she also finds she can push herself a little bit further after a day to “reset”.
But for a four-day week on full pay to work across the economy, employers will need to see productivity gains.
Workers will need to create the services and products in four days that they were creating in five, to make enough money to pay a full week’s wages.
That kind of productivity growth has proved an intractable challenge for the UK economy. It has fallen behind many other rich nations in the amount of value created per worker in recent years, with competing explanations for why, and how that might be fixed.
The report’s authors argue that although the trial was amongst organisations that volunteered to join, and were therefore more likely to make it work, the results make a strong case for a shorter working week.
“We don’t have a firm handle on exactly what happened to productivity, but we do know that on a variety of other metrics, whether we’re talking about revenue, [workforce] attrition, self-reports of productivity, employee well-being and costs, we had really good results,” says Juliet Schor, from Boston College, one of the academic institutions behind the trial, alongside the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
While most of the companies taking part said they were happy with productivity and performance outcomes, only 23 provided financial data covering revenues, and that showed revenue had broadly stayed the same over the six months of the trial.
But of the 61 companies that took part, 56 said they would continue with the four-day week, at least for now, while 18 said the policy was a permanent change.
Tylor Grange, an environmental consultancy based in Stoke-on-Trent and with six offices across England, is one of those fully embracing the new pattern.
Simon Ursell, its managing director, admits the first month of the trial was “a bit white knuckle”.
He didn’t want to simply compress into four days the work that was being done in five, because that would put staff under too much pressure, he says.
Instead the plan was to remove unnecessary meetings, travel and admin. But in the end it was the staff themselves who found the efficiencies required.
“Fundamentally, if you give people this incredible incentive of a whole day of their time a week, they are going to work really hard to make it work,” he says.
Now, he says, his staff are doing 2% more in four days than they used to do in five. The team is happier. Absenteeism has shrunk by two-thirds and applications to work at Tylor Grange are flooding in.
Those results reflect the overall findings of the report: that staff were much less inclined to call in sick, and more inclined to stay with their employer, reducing recruitment costs and making it more worthwhile training staff.
The results are not as clear-cut for every organisation, however.
Citizens Advice in Gateshead, where Faye works, is not yet ready to commit to a permanent four-day week.
Chief executive Alison Dunn says the charity found many benefits to the shorter working week, including less burn-out amongst its staff, who are under a lot of pressure in the current cost-of-living crisis.
“It has absolutely worked in the majority of the business,” she says.
“But there are some areas of the business where the jury is still out as to how effective it will be.”
It has proved harder to make efficiencies at the contact centre, which was already heavily monitored with tough targets to meet. There, Citizens Advice has had to shoulder the cost of hiring extra staff to allow for the four-day week pattern.
Ms Dunn hopes the extra investment will eventually be offset by a reduction in costs around recruitment, retention and sickness but, it’s still “a work in progress” she says, with a review due in April.