Is the 4 day working week a success?

Does a four-day work week have a positive effect on both employer and employee?
24 February 2023

Interview with 

Brendan Burchall, University of Cambridge


As previously promised, it’s time to circle back and discuss the findings of a study conducted by the University of Cambridge’s Brendan Burchall and colleagues looking into a 4 day working week. We spoke to Brendan right at the start of the trials which saw 61 companies take part in adjusting their schedules to provide participating employees with a big incentive: improve your productivity by 20% from Monday to Thursday and you can have Fridays off. The initiative was organised by campaign group 4 Day Working Week Global, which gave academics from Cambridge and Boston College in the US “under the bonnet” access to participating organisations’ finances, as well as regular updates from managers and employees. James Tytko heard about the results…

Brendan - So at the company level, we could see very clearly very significant reduction in absenteeism rates. Turnover went down, people didn't want to leave these companies. Where there were changes in the performance, their output, however they measured it. And they all measured it in different ways. But if anything, the performance tended to go up, not down, despite the cutting hours. When we looked at things like the burnout, the stress levels, the sleep quality, all those sorts of psychological and social indicators for the employees, again, across the board we saw improvements, really quite dramatic improvements. We asked people at the end of the trial whether they're happy they'd want to continue, the vast majority of employees were very happy to continue with working in this new way. And over 90% of the companies were definitely going to carry on with it. Others were having a pause and maybe thinking of redesigning it, but very unusual for any of the companies to think that they're going to go back to a five day week.

James - So what do you put that increase in productivity in fewer hours down to?

Brendan - I think overwhelmingly the biggest thing to happen was there was such a big reward for both employers and employees. A 50% increase in your weekends beyond their wildest dreams. So they were motivated to make these things work and they could then start to really radically rethink the way they were doing things, the way they were having meetings, the way that the objects or data flowed through the organization, the way that they communicated with each other, the way that they maybe were more flexible when they spotted bottlenecks in the way that things got done.

James - And I suppose, what do you say to people who might think that companies might use the initiatives that help their workforce produce the same level out of output in four days? Then they can go back to five days. And while the four day work week has of course helped their company, it's not in the way that you necessarily envisaged.

Brendan - It would be so unthinkable for companies to do that. Everyone had the same goals. If you backtracked, then I think you would lose that trust and that goodwill. And you really did have an unscrupulous boss who then thought, right, we're going to, now that means we come sack a fifth of the workforce and go back to five days a week that he would have a, or she would have a nasty surprise.

James - And I'm sure you're probably familiar with the point that this might not work in all industries. Ones which need a certain number of staff on site at all times, or where output is heavily linked with hours worked.

Brendan - Very often I start conversations where someone says to me, 'but of course it couldn't work in a ...'. And that could be a hospital or school. And actually when we start talking it through, I think there are, would be massive, similar efficiencies to be made in many of the industries. There's not many industries where the employees have to be there for exactly the same number of hours that the customers are getting a service. You know,

James - But it's not zero.

Brendan - Yep. I'm sure there would be organizations that would struggle, but I think if I was to predict what's going to happen over the next three or four years, organizations that want to attract the best talent are going to have to advertise four day week jobs. And then other companies are going to have to fall in line. When people realize, you know, just how nice it is to have Friday off as part of your weekends. Then yeah, it's just those companies, even if they're dragged kicking and screaming, they won't have any choice but to also be operating four days a week.

James - I suppose one other thing I might like to ask is whether what you've done here is kind of shine a light on the problem being that the uncomfortable <laugh> truth that people don't enjoy working that much and that this trial has provided people with the incentive of getting as much done in four days to clean up their act. And when the threat of going back to five days is removed, you might see a slide in productivity again.

Brendan - I think there's two points there. One is what's going to happen in the longer term. This is all new and it's interesting and people are very keen to adopt these new ways of working, but the novelty will wear off. And we don't know. We'll have to keep going with it. But also there are people who are interested in working time reduction because they're what you could call 'anti work'. They think that work is a way that people get exploited and we should try and liberate ourselves from it. I don't believe that. I think people are definitely happier when paid work is a part of their life. I know from my own data that people are unemployed or excluded from the labour market for other reasons, maybe because they're caring for children or for whatever reason. Their mental health isn't as good. I think work is good for you. But five days of work and two days off is too much and four days on and three days off is much healthier time for other interests, sports, hobbies, community work, whatever is a much healthier balance.


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