4 Day Working Week: If you’re going to do it, don’t “cheat” it as a way to wellbeing

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Sounds great in theory: less days for the same pay, more time off to de-stress. What’s not for employees to love? No wonder so many companies are trialling the 4 day week in the UK from June 1st, with 3,000 workers at 60 companies across Britain signed up, marking the biggest pilot in the world of its kind.

However, in practice, the link between a 4 day week and improved wellbeing is not necessarily as clear-cut as you initially might assume, as we found when we spoke to companies which have already trialled, or introduced, it.

“If you’re going to do it, don’t cheat it,” says Jordan Lorence, who is marketing manager at specialist tech recruitment company MRL Consulting Group, which implemented a 4 day week in May 2019, with all employees taking Friday off.

Lorence cautions companies against “rushing in” and tokenistically launching a programme that sounds good in a press release, but doesn’t actually work. He urges them to “do the research”, believing that the considerable time spent researching what would work for his company’s culture and industry has been key to its success.

And what does success look like for MRL?

  • 87% employees say their mental health has improved
  • 95% say they feel more rested after a 3 day weekend
  • 40% reduction in short-term absence
  • Reduction in stress and burnout in an industry renowned for these (recruitment)
  • 25% increase in productivity
  • 95% staff retention rate

“But every company is different and operates differently,” says Lorence. “You have to really nail down exactly what your company needs to achieve and then nail how you are going to do this in 4 days.”

With such a lot of hype currently, it’s easy to be drawn into it and make impulse decisions. But it’s important to keep a cool head, not make assumptions and accept there will be trial and error.

Here are some potential pitfalls to avoid when considering if/how a 4 day week would work for your company:

Don’t cram 5 days into 4

Anecdotally, this is one of the biggest reasons for 4 day working weeks compromising, rather than enhancing, employee wellbeing.

“Don’t just stretch the hours,” says Lorence. “I worry companies might look at the 4 day week and think they should do 5 days worth of hours in 4. But that will just burn employees out in 4 days, as much as in 5.”

Publishing company Happiful trialled the 4 day week in 2019, with staff working longer hours for 4 days (9-6, rather than 9-5) to allow for the extra day off in the week. Staff feedback shows that, while the process was well managed and had many benefits that were welcomed, this approach did “feel quite tiring”.

As Happiful PR manager Alice Greedus said of the trial:

“I found that putting 5 days into 4 was tiring. When it came to my day off I would put an out-of-office on and come back to emails from the day off. Sometimes this felt like a lot, having to catch up and then also remain productive for a longer day.”

As a result, the company is still researching the possibility of what might work in future.

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Don’t assume that taking Friday off is the best wellbeing solution

There’s a temptation to assume that creating a 3 day weekend will be best for staff wellbeing. This is not necessarily the case.

PTHR, a people and transformational HR consultancy, founded by progressive HR thought leader Perry Timms, has been operating a 4 day week since July 2020. Employees take a “wellness Wednesday” to punctuate the week.

“Evidence shows that if you have a longer weekend, it’s actually harder to get back into the working week,” says Kirsten Buck, chief impact and culture officer, PTHR. “Taking Wednesday off, there’s a real sense of energy on a Thursday and we all talk about what we did.”

Don’t forget to consider how reducing hours may adversely impact social interaction

If your industry is one that thrives on face to face contact – like recruitment – then social interaction may be integral to the success of a 4 day week. This is the case for MRL which is why employees work less hours but exactly the same hours and (largely) in person, which is particularly important for the younger and newer recruits and to avoid a two-tier workforce.

Meanwhile, PTHR is used to working remotely (it was doing this pre-pandemic) but has found new ways to ensure, with the introduction of the 4 day week, that staff get enough social interaction.

“We use a lot of different tech tools,” says Buck. “Slack is our main hub but we also have tools for project conversations and social channels, and we’ve even got a tool for sustainability. We also have daily check-ins, spontaneous drop-ins and wellness Wednesday challenges.”

Regardless of what you choose, good communication is paramount; both between employees and with clients, so everyone is 100% clear on how the new approach works. If not clearly addressed, issues such as holiday entitlements and pay adjustments, will end up causing additional stress.

Don’t make assumptions about what your staff want

Taking regular pulse checks on how employees are finding the 4 day week approach is essential.

Through its 3-weekly check-in, MRL learnt that bank holidays were a pain point: employees found it stressful trying to fit their work into a 3 day week, so now if there’s a bank holiday that counts as their day off, without an additional one.

Feedback also prompted the decision to keep the office open on a Friday, so those employees nervous about working 4 days had the option to go in to catch up, though this is discouraged and those employees are being given extra mentoring support.

Happiful has been closely monitoring staff reaction to its trial – it is even awaiting results of hair cortisol testing, as a way of measuring whether employee stress levels went down during the trial.

So far employee feedback has been mixed, with some saying they prefer a 5 day week, which is why the company hasn’t adopted the approach and is still researching.

The company is also chatting through other potential solutions and, indeed, it’s important not to get side-tracked into thinking the 4 day week is the only answer. Some companies, for instance, are considering the 9 day fortnight.

The UK’s mass pilot scheme of the 4 day week, conducted by the 4 Day Week Global group, will be an opportunity for us all to learn about how this approach could potentially be the future of work for many.

You might also be interested in:

Louise Aston, Wellbeing Director: How to Make ‘Good’ Jobs a Reality

About the author

Suzy Bashford is a freelance journalist, podcaster and workshop facilitator.

She is passionate about destigmatising mental health by creating a more honest, helpful narrative around it, and related topics like emotional intelligence, stress management and empathy. She also believes in the power of creativity and nature to improve our wellbeing, which she covers regularly in articles for the likes of Psychologies magazine and her own podcast, Big Juicy Creative.

When she’s not writing or podcasting, you’ll probably find her dipping in a cold loch, hiking with her dog or biking the mountain trails in the awesome Cairngorms National Park, where she lives.

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