The writer is research director at the Social Market Foundation
In gloomy times, it is natural to clutch at good news. Understandably, new research suggesting we can all have a day off work every week with no major costs got an almost breathlessly positive reception. Especially from people who already supported the move to a four-day week.
Yet despite being hailed by advocates (including former US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) as a “major breakthrough” that proves this pattern of working “works”, the research by the Autonomy think-tank and the Four Day Week campaign group raises as many questions as it settles.
Between June and December last year, 61 British employers, with 2,900 employees between them trialled a four-day week. What this meant in practice varied from firm to firm, but all workers had to be offered a “meaningful” reduction in work, with no loss of pay. Overall, average hours fell from 38 to 34 a week — so the typical participant only got an extra half a day off.
Some of the findings were eyebrow-raising. Workers said they enjoyed lower levels of stress, anxiety and sleep issues, and improved work-life balance after shifting to a shorter week, but the size of the recorded change in wellbeing is remarkable.
Before the trial, participants rated their life satisfaction as 6.69 out of 10. By the end, this had risen to 7.56. An increase in satisfaction of almost a full point on the scale is huge — that’s the sort of difference we expect to see between an unemployed person and someone in work, or between a married person and someone who is separated. Any study producing such big numbers should be very closely scrutinised.
On closer examination, that starting point is oddly low. The Office for National Statistics found that average life satisfaction last year in the UK was 7.54. That suggests the four-day week pilot involved workers who were unusually dissatisfied with their lives and pulled them up to average levels.
In any case, it is not surprising that people say their lives get better if they have to work less. The bigger question is how to pay for it. Simple arithmetic dictates than when workers move from five days of work to four, productivity must rise by 25 per cent to keep revenue flat. Otherwise, either income or profit must fall. Since firms in the study only cut hours by half a day, they needed only a 12 per cent productivity gain to maintain revenue. At least some seem to have achieved this — the group of employers providing financial data at the start and end of the pilot reported an average revenue increase of 1 per cent over the trial period. Another group that provided comparative data for an earlier period appear to have done even better, reporting a 35 per cent revenue gain.
The pilot has limitations, so we should be cautious about translating its findings to other firms and contexts. First, the sample. Despite billing itself the biggest such trial in the world, it comprised a relatively small number of self-selecting companies with sufficient enthusiasm to sign up. They came generally from white-collar industries — marketing and professional services were the most common. Some 11 per cent of participants were charities rather than profit-seeking businesses.
We should expect them, therefore, to represent the easier cases. The issue is particularly acute for the financial analysis of firm revenues, which comes from an even smaller, doubly self-selected, sample. Without knowing more about that subgroup, we can’t tell if their revenues rose because staff worked more efficiently or because of other factors.
Another problem is timing. The year 2022 was not a normal one. The invasion of Ukraine and recovery from the pandemic might, in different ways, have affected the financial performance of participating firms and the shifting moods of participants. With no control group, we don’t know if those workers became happier, and those businesses more successful, just because Covid-19 started to fade.
Where does this leave us? This might seem faint praise, but the pilot shows that the four-day week can be implemented, at least for some firms, without obvious disaster. The worker wellbeing data hints at genuinely transformative potential, though is not robust enough to make that hint a promise. The financial data indicates some firms may be able to boost productivity sufficiently to get a free lunch, but the suspicion remains that the rest of us will face trade-offs on whether to accept a hit to our profits or wages. Campaigners for the four-day week cannot down tools just yet — they still have work to do.