Momentum for a four-day work week is building, but is it realistic?

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This week, many Australians will have an extra day off thanks to the Australia Day public holiday. But why shouldn’t every work week go for just four days?

That’s the question posed by the 4 Day Week Global campaign, who have announced a new international pilot program where companies are invited to give their workers a four-day week with no loss of pay for six months, to see if their business reaps the benefits of increased productivity from happier and healthier employees.

The trials will begin in the UK in June, with Australian and New Zealand trials kicking off in August. More details will be announced in coming weeks on how local organisations can get involved.

This comes as domestic support builds for a four-day work week. Victorian unions and crossbench MPs have called for a trial in the state’s public sector. The ACT has opened a parliamentary inquiry into the idea. Meanwhile, in the US, a key group of Democrats recently backed a four-day work week bill.

So, should companies and governments give this idea a go? Here’s what we know so far about the benefits and pitfalls of shortening the weekly grind.

We’re working ourselves to death

The average Australian full-time employee worked around 42 hours per week prior to the pandemic. That’s 4.5 hours over the standard legal maximum and three hours over the risk point for developing mental health issues — and most aren’t paid for this overtime. No wonder 26% of Aussies want to work less. Conversely, 16% want more hours, particularly those in insecure work. The pandemic has only made this distribution of hours more unequal.

Meanwhile, work is getting more intense. Research shows that self-assessment of how hard we work per hour has increased markedly in the last 30 years, particularly for some of the largest professions including teaching and nursing.

And all this work is taking a physical toll. The World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization found that prior to the pandemic, about 745,000 people died per year from stroke and heart disease associated with long working hours — an increase of nearly 30% since 2000. That’s over a quarter of the deaths per annum caused by COVID-19.

Compressing the work week could give exhausted workers a much-needed rest, while prompting employers to more evenly distribute working hours.

Well-rested employees are more productive

Studies show businesses stand to benefit too. Stanford University researchers found overwork “leads to decreased total output” and that workers average productivity “decreases to the extent the additional hours they are working provide no benefit (and, in fact, are detrimental)”. Thus, modestly reducing working hours needn’t cost businesses any productive output — it may even increase it.

UK researchers surveyed 250 businesses operating a four-day work week on full pay, and found they made annual savings of $175 billion. Almost two-thirds of businesses reported an increase in staff productivity and an improvement in the quality of work.

Microsoft Japan’s four-day trial saw productivity jump 40%. Closer to home, New Zealand-based firm Perpetual Guardian’s trial saw “no drop in the total amount of work done”.

But it’s not all good news

However, it may not be immediately viable for all companies and industries. One-third of UK business trials did not see any productivity improvements, leaving them worse off.

It can be particularly difficult for businesses whose customers rely on them being available five or more days per week, for whom customer satisfaction dropped. This has led Australian business groups to oppose the proposal.

Some unionists and academics also worry that businesses could pressure employees to complete more unpaid overtime, which would particularly impact those with caring obligations. Others worry it could be a bulwark for businesses to further erode wages.

Pencil it in the calendar

Thankfully, there is a more flexible but often forgotten solution to increasing workers’ leisure time — increasing annual leave entitlements and the number of public holidays.

This would allow greater flexibility for employers and workers to negotiate when leave is taken, and businesses can still roster workers on public holidays if they’re willing to pay the penalty rates. The ACT Parliament’s discussion paper similarly floated allowing companies to keep their fifth workdays in exchange for additional leave.

Despite our ‘laid back’ reputation, Australia has a middling paid leave system. We offer permanent employees a minimum four weeks of annual leave, but many European countries guarantee six. Combined with public holidays and additional leave offered by companies to attract talent, many workers get 52 paid days off per year — that’s one per week.

If Australia added one extra day of annual leave and one new public holiday per year, most Australian states would hit the 52-day target within a decade.

Change the date and add some more

I support changing the date of Australia Day, because there are far better days to celebrate our national achievements and reflect on remaining injustices than the beginning of British invasion and the dispossession of Indigenous land. But given the diversity of our population and breadth of our history, it is difficult to pinpoint a single alternative.

Mabo Day and NAIDOC Week deserve national recognition. If Christmas and Easter garner multiple public holidays, why not Eid Al-Fitr and Rosh Hashanah? Given the significant number of Australians with Chinese heritage, why not commemorate Chinese New Year? And given men’s sport commands multiple days off in Victoria and NSW (not to mention a horse race), why not add one for, say, the AFLW Grand Final?

State and federal governments could add more public holidays that recognise our cultural diversity with the stroke of a pen. Those who refuse to do so are, to paraphrase Bob Hawke, bums.

This article was first published by Crikey.

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