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What health benefits could a four-day working week have?

The past couple of years have seen widespread changes for many companies, with practices such as working from home becoming the norm. In addition to changes implemented due to lockdowns, some companies are beginning to run trials that assess the effects of a four-day working week. This concept effectively offers employees the same salaries for spending less time at the office.

The four-day working week pilots

Trials for four-day working weeks have been happening across the globe for a while. The largest took place in Iceland between 2015 and 2019.

Around 30 UK companies are currently partaking in a six-month trial of a four-day working week, where employees' work hours are reduced to 32 hours per week. Productivity and well-being are then monitored to assess the impact of this change. Wages are not affected by the reduced hours, as researchers explore whether workers can operate at 100% productivity for 80% of the time.

The Scottish and Spanish governments also launched four-day working week pilots in January, and not-for-profit 4 Day Week Global are set to perform similar trials in Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand this year.

The 4 Day Week Global programme manager Joe O'Connor believes 2022 "will be the year that heralds in this bold new future of work."

He says the proposed structure for the four-day working week shifts companies' focus away from how long people spend at work, to focus on their output and the value of their work instead.

Mental health benefits of a four-day working week

GP Dr Sohère Roked says the potential health benefits of a four-day working week are "huge", particularly in relation to increasing productivity.

"People could spend the time they get back partaking in activities that positively impact their mental and physical health. This could be spending time with friends or family, or just resting. The less stressed we are, the more we can achieve at work."

He adds that a four-day working week offers opportunities to work on oneself, such as setting well-being goals or pursuing lifelong ambitions. It also allows workers to reduce their carbon footprint, with office space downsized and fewer commutes.

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Tom MacLaren echoes this, explaining how reduced working hours can increase energy and motivation levels.

Compressed vs reduced hours

The four-day working week is a popular concept and many businesses are introducing this in one of two ways - either by compressing previous working hours into four days or by reducing total work hours to accommodate the new four-day workweek.

"Some four-day weeks compress hours and some reduce them overall, but all of them give an extra day of free time for people to enjoy. This could mean more time for hobbies and past-times, exercising, planning a healthier diet and even getting mundane tasks done for the week," he says.

He adds that a four-day working week can allow for better planning in other aspects of life, as it gives people time to arrange appointments such as health check-ups. As the trials are still in early stages it remains unclear the impact compressed hours versus reduced hours may have on overall productivity and satisfaction. As more businesses partake in similar trials, a clearer picture will likely emerge.

What have the four-day working week pilots found?

At the end of 2020, Henley Business School surveyed 505 business leaders and more than 2,000 employees in the UK to better understand the impact of the four-day working week on Britain's modern workforce.

Their findings included:

  • ⅔ of businesses reported improvements in staff productivity.
  • 78% said staff were happier.
  • 70% said staff were less stressed.
  • 62% said staff took fewer days off ill.
  • 63% said a four-day working week helped them to attract and retain workers.
  • 40% of employees used the extra day off to develop professional skills.
  • 25% said they used the extra day to volunteer.

The four-day working week proved particularly popular with younger generations. 72% of Brits back a four-day week, with 67% of Gen Z (those born between 1997-2012) saying it would influence their decision on where to work.

With regards to the financial impact of a four-day working week, it's estimated that it could save businesses £104 billion annually. Early adopters of the four-day week have reportedly saved £92 billion annually so far.

Physical health benefits of a four-day working week

Dr MacLaren explains that the shifted focus on getting their work done across just four days, rather than five, could help employees re-think and improve their time management.

One physical benefit of this is improved sleep hygiene. A more relaxed state of mind not only means fewer restless nights but also provides opportunities to rise later in the day and have an easier morning, without having to rush.

An extra day off without the pressures of a working day allows for more time doing physical exercise. This is important because studies show 27.1% of adults were considered to be inactive, doing less than 30 minutes of exercise on average per week, between November 2019 and November 2020.

Doing more exercise offers benefits in terms of disease prevention. The National Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion says regular physical activity improves both your overall health and fitness and quality of life, reducing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, various types of cancer, anxiety, depression and dementia.

Who might be most positively impacted by a four-day working week?

While a four-day working week could improve life for many employees, there are specific groups that could benefit the most.

Dr MacLaren adds that a four-day working week could help:

Parents - allowing them to spend more time with their children but also have time off when their children are at school.

People with mental illnesses - allowing them to engage in mindfulness, talking therapies, support groups or other well-being activities.

Disabled people and employees with chronic health conditions - allowing them time to recuperate and work remotely, manage anxiety and improve confidence. It also means they'd have more time to attend appointments.

What are the drawbacks of a four-day working week?

The four-day working week is not yet a 'silver bullet'. For instance, it does not suit every business model and may not appeal to some workers.

The Henley Business School study found that 73% of business leaders had concerns regarding meeting deadlines and maintaining staff.

Operational issues

Some organisations have scrapped efforts towards a four-day week. In 2019 the London-based Wellcome Trust, the world's second-biggest research donor, ended a four-day working week for its 800 head office staff, claiming it was "too operationally complex to implement."

Increased stress

The four-day working week could potentially have the opposite effect to its intention, and actually increase stress and decrease happiness. Employees who are expected to still work 35 or 40 hours, but across four days, may actually show decreased levels of productivity and it can also impact employees' engagement, work-life balance and overall mood.

If company targets and objectives remain the same but hours worked are reduced, this could increase pressure and stress on workers. Trying to achieve these targets to meet tighter deadlines could lead to longer periods of work or could lead to work being rushed (and of worse quality) to accommodate the new schedule.

In addition, some workers may feel emotional distress if the company decides to revert back to a standard five day working week after the trial period. This could create uncertainty for staff who are in favour of a four-day working week and opposed to a return to five days. There's also potential for this to create hostility within a workforce.

Fear of judgement

45% of respondents worried that spending less time at work would make colleagues think they're lazy. 35% felt concerned about handing their work over to a colleague. Handing work over to a colleague has the potential to increase someone else's stress levels if their workload is high while they cover an absence.

Dr MacLaren adds that losing a day at work could take some time for people to get used to since it constitutes a major change.

"People might need time and support to help plan their workload so it fits well into the four-day pattern. This pattern of working might not be for everyone, and those with anxiety about their working life might find their symptoms worsen at first. It would be important to discuss the planned change with a line manager and review how the new pattern works over time."

He says it might be necessary to make small adjustments to the hours worked, the length and number of meetings, and the balance between office-based and remote work, to help staff adjust.

A four-day working week in practice

Joanna Earle works as a media manager at a company with a four-day working week. She says working 37.5 hours across four days has had major benefits.

"It means that I can do all my life admin on a Friday. It also means I can have a 'me'; day. I can go to the gym or do yoga, see my nieces and nephews, and meet my friends for a coffee. It's allowed me to have a work-life balance, which I potentially didn't have when I was working a five-day week. I feel so refreshed now after a weekend, rather than feeling like I've crammed everything into two days."

Not only does Earle feel more productive and in a better place mentally, but having an additional day off has allowed her to manage her physical health too.

She underwent surgery for endometriosis in September, so having Friday free meant she could make appointments without disrupting her work schedule.

However, Earle says it is difficult to switch off at the end of her working week.

"The biggest thing I've found difficult is disconnecting on Fridays. This has led to me checking my emails and replying to clients on a Friday. I have to make a conscious effort to set boundaries and prioritise what is urgent."

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