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Four-day Workweek: How Countries Across Europe Experimented. A Success Or Failure?

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The traditional five-day workweek has been the norm for decades, but as work-life balance becomes increasingly important to employees, there is a growing interest in a four-day workweek. This schedule has been touted to improve employee well-being, increase productivity, and reduce carbon emissions. However, the question remains: is a four-day workweek a success or a failure?

The concept of a four-day workweek is not new, and some countries have already implemented it. For example, New Zealand tried a four-day workweek in 2018, and it was deemed a success. Similarly, in Japan, Microsoft implemented a four-day workweek, and productivity increased by 40%. However, these trials were conducted on a small scale and may not necessarily be replicable on a larger scale.

The idea is simple, such that employees have to work four days a week while earning the same salary and getting the same benefits, but with the same amount of work. Companies that have shortened their workweek would function with fewer meetings and increased independent work.

For the better future of employee productivity and work-life balance, the four-day workweek model supports that whenever implemented, worker satisfaction and productivity increases.

Trade unions across Europe are requesting for governments to allow the four-day working week, but which countries have successfully tested the idea, let’s find out.

Belgium

In February 2022, Belgian employees acquired the right to execute a week’s work in four days rather than five without losing their salary. The bill was imposed in November 2021, permitting employees to decide whether to wish to work four or five days a week.

But this does not indicate that employees will be working less, instead, they will have to perform the entire week’s work in just four days. 

Alexander Croo, Belgian Prime minister, expects the bill to make Belgium’s stringent labor market flexible and easier for people to balance their family lives with their careers.

He added, the new model should lead to a more powerful economy.

“The goal is to give people and companies more freedom to arrange their work time,” he said. “If you compare our country with others, you’ll often see we’re far less dynamic,” he added. 

According to Eurostat data for the third quarter of 2021, around 71 Belgians out of 100 aged between 20 to 64 years have a job, which is less than the average in the eurozone which is about 73 and a complete 10 percentage points as compared to its neighbouring countries such as the Netherlands and Germany. 

Belgium’s seven-party federal coalition aims to achieve an 80 percent employment rate by 2030, in the hope to maintain affordable legal pensions or finance future tax cuts.

However, not all are in favour of the four-day workweek. 

Some full-time employees may work very long days if they condense their hours, and others, such as shift workers, will not be able to work with flexibility.

United Kingdom

In the UK, companies that conducted a six-month trial of the four-day workweek are now seeking to make shorter workweek permanent, after having an “extremely successful” experiment.

Even the big companies were involved in the six-month trial initiative that began on June 6 last year to take note of the impact of the shorter working hours on the functioning of businesses, while keeping the workers’ well-being and impact on the workplace environment and gender equality.

About 61 UK companies and over 3,300 employees were a part of the program, conducted by researchers at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Boston College, and the non-profit advocacy groups 4 Day Week Global, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign as well as the UK think tank Autonomy.

After the trial period ended, the majority of the companies (92 percent) landed on the decision to enforce the four-day week policy, making the pilot program a ‘major breakthrough”.

During the trial, employees were given to follow the “100:80:100 model”, which means 100 percent of pay for 80 percent of the time, in exchange for maintaining at least 100 percent productivity.

Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week UK Campaign, said, “similar programs are set to start in the US and Ireland, with more planned for Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.”

Scotland and Wales

A government trial is set to begin in 2023 in Scotland, while Wales too is planning a trial run. 

The decision was taken by the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP). The employees will have their work reduced to 80 percent without losing any compensation.

The government cited the latest poll produced by the Scottish think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in Scotland which pointed out that 80 percent of the people’s response was positive to the initiative.

The respondents believe that the program will improve their health and happiness. 

Scotland considers Iceland and its powerful outcome to be the reason behind for Scotland to run a trial of the four-day workweek.

With Glasgow-based UPAC Group hoping its employees will appreciate a four-day week with the same pay after a successful trial program, some Scottish businesses have already condensed their workweek.

A member of the Senedd and chair of the committee, Jack Sargeant, informed the website Nation. Cymru that Wales is to take lead on exploring the four-day week.

He said, “It is a bold proposal but no bolder than those campaigners who fought for a five-day week, paid holiday, and sick pay which we now take for granted.”

“When we’re calling for a four-day week we’re (talking about) reducing the working hours within an organization, but not a reduction in the rate of pay. There are several trials out there which suggest that productivity increases.”

Spain

Last year, the small left-wing party Mas Pais publicly declared that the government accepted their plea to permit a pilot program of a four-day working week. The pilot project was launched in December.

The pilot helped SMEs condense their working week by half a day, without compromising salaries.

The pilot was a test to know whether productivity can be enhanced. Spain’s Industry Ministry said companies that participated received $ 10.7 million from the government fund, but on the condition to plan ways to increase productivity that is worth the wage cost.

The changes must be implemented within a year, while the company should run the program for at least two years.

In the first year, the pilot will be partly financing wage costs by the government and will provide aid for fund training to boost efficiency. Workers having a full-time permanent contract can only participate.

Iceland

In the period between 2015 to 2019, Iceland conducted the world’s largest pilot of a 35 to 36-hour workweek by reducing the traditional 40 hours of work, without any decision to cut salaries. 

Around 2,500 people were involved in the test phase.

The result of the test was provided by the British think tank Autonomy and the Icelandic non-profit Association for Sustainability and Democracy (ALDA) so that quality control can be assured.

The pilot was dubbed a success by researchers and Icelandic trade unions in exchange for reduced working hours.

The study yielded a remarkable change in Iceland, with approximately 90 percent of the working population having their working hours reduced along with other accommodations.

Researchers discovered that with reduced worker stress and burnout, there was an improvement seen in the life-work balance, though not every government had the same success as Iceland with the four-day workweek program.

Sweden

In Sweden, the four-day workweek without any compensation was tried in 2015, but the outcome yielded mixed results.

The trial included testing six-hour workdays rather than eight hours without any pay cut, but not everybody agreed to the idea of spending money on trial.

The left-wing parties also saw the idea to be very expensive to be conducted on a large scale.

Positive results were reported from the orthopaedics units of a university hospital, in which 80 nurses and doctors were switched to a six-hour workday, and appointed new staff to compensate for the lost hours.

While the experiment was subjected to criticism and was not taken up, positive results were noted by the medical staff. However, companies such as carmaker Toyota, decided to function with reduced working hours for its workers. Toyota was already planning to do so in mechanics 10 years ago and was staunch in its decision.

Despite the extensive claims, Finland has not yet introduced a four-day workweek.

The northern European country made international headlines after reducing working hours drastically, in early 2023.

The Finnish government was seeking to introduce a four-day working week as well as a six-hour day. However, this news was reported to be fake, and the government had to clear the record straight.

Sanna Martin, Sweden’s current prime minister, tweeted the idea in August 2019 but it is not a part of the government’s agenda.

Germany

Germany has among the shortest average working weeks in Europe. The average working week is 34.2 hours, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Trade unions are still requesting reduced working hours.

Even the world’s largest trade union, IG Metall, has demanded shorter working weeks, as it would make it easier to retain jobs and dodge layoffs.

An estimated 71 percent of the working people in Germany prefer the option to work only four days a week, according to a Forsa survey.

Three-quarters of the survey pointed out that they are in favor of the government finding ways to inculcate a four-day week. More than two out of three employers supported this. 

A majority of 75 percent consider a four-day week to be in favor of the employees, while a majority of 59 percent believe it should have something for the employers as well.

Around 46 percent of the employers said they consider a four-day week trial in their workplace to be “feasible”.

It is yet to know whether this request will be implemented or discussed. So far, only the small start-up companies are testing with reduced working weeks.

Japan

In Japan, the larger companies are testing a four-day workweek after the government announced in 2021 that a plan to improve work-life balance must be made throughout the nation.

There are many reasons why this plan is in favor of the country, as death due to overworking has taken many lives.

Staff working extra hours cause illness due to too much work or develop suicidal behavior.

Microsoft, in 2019, experimented with its employees by offering them three-day weekends for a month.

This increased productivity by 40 percent and the outcome yielded more efficient work.

New Zealand

In New Zealand, 81 employees working for Unilever, a consumer goods giant, are conducting a year-long trial of a four-day workweek with full pay.

Managing Director of Unilever New Zealand, Nick Bangs, said “Our goal is to measure performance on output, not time. We believe the old ways of working are outdated and no longer fit for purpose.” 

If the experiment is a success, it will be implemented in other countries.

US and Canada

A majority of about 92 percent of US workers prefer shortened workweek, even if they have to work for longer hours, as per a survey by cloud-software vendor Qualtrics.

The survey showed improved mental health and increased productivity among the employees with the provided benefits.

About 74 percent of the employees believe that they could complete work within four days with the same workload, but the rest 72 percent of employees are of the view that they would have to work for longer hours to complete the work.

In Canada, research by a global employment agency, Indeed, discovered that 41 percent of Canadian employers are opting for alternative hybrid schedules and new work styles, since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed’s survey of 1,000 employers of office workers in Canada pointed out that 51 percent of large companies having 500+ employees are “likely to implement 4-day workweeks”.

In comparison, 63 percent of medium-sized organizations having 100-500 employees state that they are ready to function with a shorter workweek.

According to a new report by Maru Public Opinion, a majority of Canadian full-time workers, about 79 percent, agreed to shorten their five-day workweek to four days.

In conclusion, the success or failure of a four-day workweek depends on individual circumstances. The evidence suggests that it can be a viable option for some industries and companies, but it may not be suitable for others. Employers should consider the practicality of a four-day workweek before implementing it and ensure that it does not negatively affect productivity or employee well-being. While a four-day workweek has benefits, it is important to weigh them against any potential drawbacks before deciding.

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