The 4-day workweek has been a subject of discussion for several years now. Companies who prefer this model think about its main benefit - cutting operating costs and increasing productivity. For the employees the advantages are multiple. They can spend more time with family and friends, their work satisfaction increases, they get more free time for themselves so that they can pursue their hobbies, and they also get more sleep. Stress-related problems, that lead to many chronic diseases, should also be diminished, morale should increase and health should improve overall.
But the greatest benefit of this model is that it would protect the environment, by reducing pollution. At the moment, according to this new model, employees should work 40 hours across a 4 day week, but in the future it is likely that a 32-hour workweek will become the model, meaning 8 hours of work per day for 4 days a week. This way, people should have an extended 3 days weekend.
Belgium is now offering employees the possibility to work only 4 days a week and the model seems to gain traction in other parts of the world as well. Those who want can work 40 hours in just 4 days. They have the possibility to decide whether they prefer to work 4 or 5 days. The Belgian government hopes that this model will help people get a better balance between work and personal life and will create a more dynamic economy. Unfortunately, so far, shift workers cannot benefit from this change.
If we look at the changes that occurred to the workweek during history, we shall notice that the number of working days and working hours per day have permanently decreased. In Ancient Rome, there were cycles of 8 working days followed by a day off, called nundinae, when people were selling the produce of their labor. During the French Revolution, there were cycles of 10 working days, called decades, followed by one leisure day. According to Christian tradition, Sunday was considered a day of rest and worship. The first five-day workweek appeared in the United States in 1908.
In 1973-1974, the United Kingdom introduced the 3-day week in order to conserve electricity. The 35-hours workweek was adopted in February 2000 in France, and its main purposes were to lower the unemployment rate and expand the economy. They intended to create new jobs, by making it less cost-effective for companies to pay current employees working overtime, and make them hire new employees instead. They also wanted to help people get more free time, that they could spend with friends and family, thus giving them a better life-work balance, but without lowering their standard of living.
Labor activists and environmentalists are the main proponents of the 4-day workweek. A British think-tank promoting economic, social, and environmental justice, called ”The New Economics Foundation”, has proposed the 21-hour standard workweek, due to issues related to unemployment, social inequalities, poverty, overworking, but also due to the high carbon emissions. The reduction of working hours should have positive effects on the environment, and it would slow climate change.
The pandemic led to an interest in flexible work arrangements, and this led to a resurgence of interest in the 4-day working model. During the pandemic, several countries launched 4-day workweek trials. Spain adopted a 3-year trial of a 32-hour workweek. Scotland and Wales are also currently testing a similar model.
Attempts were made before the pandemic as well. Sweden tried this model in 2015, and Iceland between 2015-2019. In Germany, it is mainly smaller companies that prefer the model, due to the fact that it reduces costs, while in Japan and New Zealand it is the larger companies that have chosen it.
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