A four-day working week... it sounds like just the job to me

A new trial programme aiming to allow employers to test the effectiveness of a four-day working week was launched recently. Is it a good idea? asks Colette Sheridan
A four-day working week... it sounds like just the job to me

WATCHING THE CLOCK: While some organisations are lobbying for a four day working week, other people are not so sure

THE prospect of having the equivalent of a Bank Holiday, every week, would be very welcome for most of us, apart from workaholics who presumably don’t like too much free time as it might force them to reflect on themselves.

The rest of us would have no trouble filling three days with everything from doing the laundry and catching up on reading to spending weekends in London, Paris or anywhere that doesn’t involve being in the air for too long.

Three days off? Sheer luxury — even if it just gives you the time to do your NCT. That kind of activity falls under the label of ‘admin’, those tedious but necessary tasks that you struggle to expedite when work takes up all your time.

Last week, a new trial programme aiming to allow employers to test the effectiveness of a four-day working week was launched. The pilot, a six-month experiment, is being led by the Four Day Week Ireland campaign.

This group believes a four-day work week would benefit employees, who could enjoy a better work/life balance. And, it claims, it could lead to greater productivity for businesses.

Presumably, it’s all about working smarter, with bosses benefiting from a happier workforce whose lives are not totally consumed by work.

It could even help the environment, reducing carbon emissions and air pollution with less travelling to work and less power used in offices and factories. It would also make childcare cheaper and facilitate the care of the elderly. What’s not to like?

Well, there are naysayers.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise and employment, Leo Varadkar, has said it’s difficult to see how it would work in sectors such as health, education and manufacturing. 

The way a four-day week might pan out could see employees doing compressed work schedules where the daily hours are longer but the working week is shorter.

Various pilot programmes around the world have shown promising results. According to the Society for Human Resource Management in the U.S, 31% of employees were in a compressed work-week schedule as of 2015. But that is only the case for 5% of large companies.

And studies show the potential dangers arising from the additional risks created when work demands exceed a particular threshold.

Professor of Public Health at the Ohio State University, Allard Dembe, says that most of the studies he has carried out suggest that “the dangers are most pronounced when people regularly work more than 12 hours per day or 60 hours per week”.

Professor Dembe says that, despite the enthusiasm for a four-day week, he isn’t convinced that the kind of schedule involved is beneficial for employees or businesses.

The main problem is that whatever work needs to be done, needs to get done in the same amount of total time. 

“Despite wishes to the contrary, there are still only 24 hours in a day.”

Working five eight-hour shifts is equivalent to working four ten-hour shifts. A longer working day can result in fatigue and stress.

Professor Dembe carried out a study that shows the risk of suffering an industrial accident is raised by 37% for employees working more than 12 hours in a day. The risk is 61% higher for people working overtime shifts.

We often complain that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. But at least most of us in full-time work have two days a week off. Spare a thought for those who have come before us, working their butts off, in less enlightened times when ‘quality of life’ wasn’t a thing.

In ancient Rome, people got one day off every eight days. This was market day, when children were exempted from school and workers stopped toiling in the field and came to the city to sell their produce or practise their religion.

The concept of the weekend as we know it first arose in the early 19th century in the north of England. It was originally a voluntary arrangement between factory owners and workers, allowing Saturday afternoon off from 2pm.

The thinking was that staff would be available for work, sober and refreshed, on Monday morning. (Presumably, you could go to a tavern on the Saturday and recover the next day. A bit like now, really, except Friday night is also a delight for those who want a few bevies to kick-start the weekend).

In 1926, Henry Ford began shutting down his factories for all of Saturday and Sunday. In 1929, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America Union was the first union to demand and receive a five-day workweek.

Now, the New Economics Foundation, a British think-tank that promotes social, economic and environmental justice, recommends moving to a 21-hour standard work-week to address problems such as unemployment and high carbon emissions.

That would be liberation. But could we afford it?

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