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Woman working on her laptopBBC Three/iStock

What if we only worked four days a week?

Thursday could actually become the new Friday

Ashitha Nagesh

Monday to Friday, nine to five - like hamsters on a wheel, we've been stuck in this rut for as long as we can remember, amirite?

Well, fear no more fellow hamsters because that could all be about to change.

People are increasingly starting to question whether a five-day working week is a good deal for employees and employers alike.

In fact, a company in New Zealand recently pledged to allow all of its staff to work four-day weeks. 

The company, Prospect Guardian, ran a trial earlier this year which reportedly found workers were less stressed and had a better work-life balance when they had an extra day off  in the week, but were paid for five days. This, in turn, apparently meant they were more productive on the days that they were in the office.

“For us, this is about our company getting improved productivity from greater workplace efficiencies," Andrew Barnes, the company's founder, told The Guardian. "There’s no downside for us.”

It’s no surprise people are re-thinking how we work. One recent study found that younger workers feel more stressed at work than their older colleagues, and more than a quarter say they're expected to push through their stress and keep working. At the same time, a 2016 report suggested millennials were the generation most likely to feel as if they're overworking, and to feel guilty using their annual leave.

Plus, the Health and Safety Executive estimates that, in 2016/17, Britain lost 12.5 million working days due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

So, if it’s true shorter working weeks reduce stress and help workers’ mental health, they could be a particularly welcome change for Gen Z and millennial employees, as well as their employers. 

It's an idea that has been around for a long time. In fact, a Time magazine article from 1965 predicted that, with the advent of personal computers, our working weeks would drastically reduce - perhaps even to 20 hours a week - because technology would start doing all the heavy lifting.

Office workers using computers in 1965Getty Images
Office workers using computers in 1965

"Some of the more radical prophets foresee the time when as little as 2% of the workforce will be employed, [and] warn that the whole concept of people as producers of goods and services will become obsolete as automation advances," the article claimed.

It added, even with “the most moderate estimates of automation’s progress…millions of people will have to adjust to leisurely, ‘nonfunctional’ lives”.

LOL. (Ahem. Sorry.)

Obviously, things haven't quite worked out that way.

Rather than pushing us all into a life of leisure, tech has arguably had the opposite effect - it's enabled an 'always-on' culture that means even when you go home, the work doesn't stop.

Aidan Harper has been running 4DayWeek - a campaign for, well, a four-day, work week across the UK - for the last two years.

“Clearly our current five-day structure isn’t working,” he tells BBC Three. 

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Research has suggested women, in particular, are left stretched by longer working weeks because while men and women are expected to work equal hours, women still tend to be the ones to pick up childcare and unpaid housework.

But Aidan says this system has a negative impact on both genders, particularly parents.

“Young fathers in particular, nowadays, want to take on more care-giving roles,” he says. “That is, looking after their kids. According to one study from 2017, 69% of fathers say they’d consider childcare before accepting a promotion at work. But they find that even if they wanted to take on more at home, they can’t because they’re stuck in a rigid five-day working week.”

Which is why some companies in the UK are also giving shorter weeks a go.

Jonny Tooze, who runs a digital agency in London, switched his company to a four-day working week two months ago “after seeing the energy and enthusiasm in our teams increase after a three-day bank holiday weekend”.

“We’re going to conduct a staff survey to understand how the four-day work week has impacted on people’s happiness and stress levels, but so far our team has responded really positively,” Jonny tells BBC Three. “They have been doing more of the things they love with their free time, whether that’s taking long weekend breaks, visiting friends and family, or doing personal projects. Their extra day has also allowed them to do the ‘life admin’ which usually takes up a lot of our weekends.”

He adds productivity has “remained constant”, which he says is a promising sign for the future.

And just last month, trade unions in the UK formally called for shorter working weeks - with the TUC's Frances O'Grady telling BBC News that technology could be the key.

"We know some people are pessimistic about whether technology will make their lives better but technology could be a force for good, we can also make everyone's working lives better and richer," she said. "It doesn't have to be about surveillance and exploitation. This could be about creating more satisfying work."

There’s no denying that having regular, three-day weekends sounds tempting - but not everyone thinks shorter working weeks are as good as they seem. 

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Jamie Waller is an investor in small companies and a business writer. He tells BBC Three: "As an investor, I exclusively like to work with businesses that are 100% dedicated to success - not places that offer 'pizza Tuesdays' or shorter weeks. I want to work with people who adore what they do, and spend their five days enjoying the perks of work itself, not the added extras."

Sue Andrews, a management consultant and business owner herself, adds that technology can’t replace human work (yet) - so shorter weeks could put strain on businesses.

“With current labour shortages caused by low levels of unemployment, there simply aren’t enough workers in the economy to reduce working hours and retain the level of staffing needed in many sectors,” she says, adding the situation could get worse if there are post-Brexit restrictions on migrant labour.

While admitting that “the obvious advantage of working over fewer days would appear to be an improved work-life balance” for workers, Sue warns against relying on shorter working weeks to improve employees’ mental health.

“Good mental health comes from having the right environment to manage challenges and pressures," she says. "However, going to a four-day week simply pushes these pressures into a shorter period of time. If the result is longer working days, then any perceived mental health benefits may be lost. Overall young people’s general wellbeing would be improved by spreading out work pressures and ensuring adequate rest periods each day.”

Which is an important point. If shorter working weeks are going to, well, work, companies need to make sure they don't just cram the same amount of work into a shorter period of time.

There's no denying many of us are truly O.V.E.R. the whole five-day, nine-to-five thing - although whether longer weekends really are as chill as we've imagined remains to be seen.

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This article was originally published on 4 October 2018.

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by vRS

    10 Oct 2018 10:05
    But where does this stop? How long before people start saying that a 3 day week is more efficient than a 4 day week?
  • Comment number 29. Posted by andy9

    10 Oct 2018 8:04
    This isn't new.

    Some people have already been working 4 day weeks for several years.

    The car park and roads near our local railway station, within commuting distance of London, have about 100 cars parked on other weekdays, only about 30 on Fridays.
  • Comment number 28. Posted by Iseewhatitisandwhyitiso

    9 Oct 2018 22:37
    Jamie waller you are illiterate. If you "exclusively work" in such areas, I do hope no-one catches you breathing or sleeping as that would contradict your claims to exclusivity. I think you are searching for "work exclusively".

    Go back to counting your dad's diminishing trust fund returns.

    Do not try to educate the masses, what you know about life isn't worth sharing.

  • Comment number 27. Posted by dgj

    9 Oct 2018 21:32
    When there was enforced three day week during 1974 miners' strike, workers upped their levels.
    Four day week should have been considered long ago, but employers were reluctant to pay at the same level as for five days, and it was felt that many workers would just do more overtime. Attitudes may have changed now.
  • Comment number 26. Posted by Victor

    9 Oct 2018 15:42
  • Comment number 25. Posted by LornaM

    9 Oct 2018 14:15
    this is only about office workers isn`t it? you can`t decide to work Monday to Thursday in any dynamic workplace, Health professionals, security services, teachers, dinner ladies and bin men! If you don`t like 9-5 Mon-Friday maybe you are in the wrong job. My experience of "shortened hours" workers is that there is always a crisis on Friday and nonbody is around. So the mugs who work their hours in traditional manner always end up working overtime to compensate for the snowflakes who disappear.
  • Comment number 24. Posted by crystal clear

    9 Oct 2018 7:31
    Do not be duped... It is likely because of robots taking over jobs. Yes everyone would like a 4 day week for the same pay, but then wages consequentlyprobably will not rise as they would have . If or when someone leaves their position it won.t likely be replaced by a human 4 days a week, but by a fulltime robot. Beware of the 4day week - your livelihood is at stake!
  • Comment number 23. Posted by Ed

    8 Oct 2018 0:23
    The 'challenge' is to persuade a minimum wage worker they would rather have an extra day off instead of earning more pay for doing a 5-day week.

    Their's are usually the most adaptable jobs and also the point where cultural change takes place, rather than the higher paid professionals who already have greater control over their lives.

    It's a difficult change for a globally competitive work-environment, but not reason it couldn't already start with 4 x 9-hour days. - But also worth bearing in mind graduates may need to study to 25 for the same education! and the expanded leisure time since the 80's has mostly been absorbed with social media!
  • Comment number 22. Posted by Oblivion

    7 Oct 2018 23:23
    Work when you want. Do what you want. Try to maintain a routine, it is healthy.
  • Comment number 21. Posted by U14981698

    7 Oct 2018 14:47
    Go MGTOW and even a three day workweek, or equivalent, would be viable!