The coronavirus pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives, and it’s had a particularly marked effect on the way we work. The largest flexible working experiment ever conducted has taken place out of necessity, and the early signs are that it will leave a lasting change in work culture. More workers than ever before have been able to fit their work-life around their home life by working at different hours – increasingly necessary due to childcare commitments during the closure of schools. With 44% of UK workers set to request permanent flexible working policies (according to research from Direct Line), there are no signs that it’s going away anytime soon.
The four-day week has always been a popular topic in the flexible working discourse, and although it has been adopted by some employers, it hasn’t yet gone mainstream. Here’s why its time has come.
A secondary effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been its effect on our mental health. Months of anxiety, coupled with increasingly difficult economic conditions and less contact with friends and family, have unsurprisingly taken their toll.
As countries seek to kickstart their economies again, any steps that will safeguard the mental health of workers need to be seriously considered. Figures from the ONS show that 17.5 million workdays were lost due to mental health problems in the UK in 2018, for example, underlining the drastic impact mental health problems can have on the economy as well as the workers themselves.
Mental health and employee wellbeing, in general, have always been one of the principal driving forces behind the four-day week. It’s seen as an important step towards a greater work-life balance, allowing for effectively a three-day weekend each and every week. Workers would have more time to recover from a stressful work week, freeing up that time and energy to pursue other hobbies and interests that can be beneficial for their mental health. With work-related mental health problems increasingly widespread, measures such as this are more important than ever.
The four-day week not only makes sense in terms of mental health – but it also benefits the company’s bottom line. Although, as fewer hours are worked overall, the expectation might be that production (and therefore profits) suffer as a result, the opposite is actually true.
What the four-day week experiments reveal is the importance of the quality of the hours worked, rather than necessarily the sheer quantity of those hours. Happy workers are productive workers. What’s better: an engaged, rested, happy employee working for 30 hours a week, or a burned-out employee working for 40 (or even more)? You can probably guess the answer.
The human brain is not a machine, churning out hours of equally productive work hours, but a sensitive organ with complicated needs of its own. To run at its maximum, most productive capacity, it needs rest. The same principle can be seen in a normal working day. Working for eight hours straight, with no break, will produce worse quality work than a smaller number of hours that have been split up with breaks. Such is the power of a break for the brain.
Now is the time
The coronavirus pandemic has only strengthened the case for a four-day working week. With unprecedented public health and mental health challenges, a struggling jobs market, and an ailing economy, it’s time has truly come. Workers will be happier and more productive, and the wider economy will also benefit. With an extra day of leisure, domestic tourism will also benefit – workers would have three days to recharge their batteries instead of two, giving them the time and energy to go further afield at the weekend and contribute to the wider economy.
It may seem like a radical step, but so did the move away from a six-day week of 12 hour working days. Rigid, traditional ideas around work culture can be difficult to break down, but these should not stand in the way of positive progress – both for employee wellbeing and the productivity of the company as a whole.