Four-day week risks further divisions among workers

Four day

With workers toiling for longer since the onset of the pandemic – one study has suggested that hours in the UK are up by 25 per cent – the momentum for a shift to a four-day week has gained renewed traction. Skills shortages across an array of sectors might suggest the bargaining power exists to put a shorter working week within grasp, but roadblocks persist.

New research from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) found that 80% of UK workers were unwilling to move to a four-day week if that meant a corresponding cut in pay. According to the thinktank’s figures, only one in 10 were prepared to earn less to work fewer hours.

The counterargument from trade unions and some economists is that people can work for fewer hours without reducing their overall productivity, making a cut in pay unnecessary. A recent trial in Iceland was deemed an “overwhelming success”, with Icelandic pressure group Alda and British thinktank Autonomy reporting that a reduction from 40 to 35 or 36 hours per week did not lead to a dip in output in most workplaces, and in some it improved.

But to equate to a four-day week, the number of hours would have to be cut by seven or eight, not four or five. In 61 of the 66 workplaces where the trial took place, the reduction was just one to three hours.

That’s a long way from making a four-day week the norm. And while a shift to a 32-hour working week would see 73% of employees working less than the current average of 36.5 hours, the SMF’s research found a clear split in attitudes between higher and lower earners in their desire to work more or fewer hours.

White-collar workers and those in highly paid roles were most likely to want a reduction while at the other end of the scale, social care and hospitality workers more likely wanted to up their working hours.

Among its election manifesto promises earlier this year, the SNP said it will fund a pilot of the four-day working week in this country. One area that should be closely examined is whether such a move creates further divides between higher and lower earners.

Those who work shifts and are paid on an hourly basis are unlikely to be able to reap any of the benefits from a shorter working week without losing out financially. If it is simply not practical or too costly for some sectors to move to a four-day week, this risks becoming yet another “perk” for those who are already better off.

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Posted on July 22, 2021