Would you like to only have to work four days a week and still get paid for five? The question might seem absurd but for a tiny, yet growing, number of people this is starting to become a reality. A number of firms across the UK and the world have begun in recent years to experiment with cutting working hours and the early results appear promising.

Since John Maynard Keynes predicted back in the 1930s that his grandchildren's generation might only have to work a fifteen-hour week, people have dreamed of the idea that technology and automation might allow the gains from productivity to filter through to reduced working hours and more leisure time for workers. Working hours did fall from the 1940s through the 1970s but have flat lined since then. Compounding the problem is that productivity growth itself has stalled in the UK over the past decade.

Yet what if the connection between productivity and working hours was the other way round? What if our excessive working hours and the prevalence of what have come to be called 'bullshit jobs' are themselves holding back our productivity? If this was true, we could actually boost productivity simply by cutting working hours, such as by asking workers to only work a four-day week.

This is exactly what one firm in New Zealand did last year. In a highly publicised case study, Perpetual Guardian, an estate planning and investment advice firm, undertook an eight week trial of a four-day week for its 240 employees, under academic supervision from the University of Auckland, keeping their pay and all other conditions the same. The results published by the academics were remarkable – productivity rose by 20%, exactly offsetting the 20% cut in hours so that output remained the same. Given this, combined with improved wellbeing and work-life balance, the company decided to continue the policy indefinitely.

If these findings are replicable in other workplaces, a four-day week could offer a cure to the UK's productivity woes. At the same time, its advocates promise a wealth of other benefits. Wellbeing of the workforce could be increased, reducing stress and mental health issues. Gender equality could be advanced by giving men more time at home to shoulder their fair share of domestic labour. Workers could also put their time off to good use by investing it in acquiring vital new skills, volunteering in the community, or care work to help tackle the UK's social care crisis. The policy could even help us meet our carbon emissions targets by reducing the level of commuting and saving energy by shutting down offices and factories one extra day each week.

With its advocates promising all this and more, it is no surprise that interest in the idea has been growing at a remarkable rate over the past couple of years, with many small UK firms announcing trials of their own – call centre Pursuit Marketing and information and digital resource company Memiah are among the latest UK firms to join this growing list. Yet the biggest employer yet to announce earlier this year it was considering the idea – the Wellcome Trust with 800 employees – ultimately decided against the policy after an internal feasibility study. Their experience may point to limitations and obstacles to the policy spreading as fast as its early enthusiasts might have hoped.

Wellcome concluded that the policy was "too operationally complex to implement", particularly as they employed such a wide variety of different kinds of roles and couldn't promise that they could deliver the policy in a way that was fair to all of them. This points at a deeper issue with the idea of a four-day week; most of those who have successfully trialled it have been office based roles like marketing, creative work, communications or IT, where the workload can be easily rescheduled throughout a week. For customer-facing roles where constant service provision is required, such as baristas, museum guides or public sector jobs like firefighters, police officers or NHS clinical workers, it's very hard to see how hours can be reduced without a corresponding loss of provision, unless more workers are hired to compensate. There are legitimate concerns too about work intensification – some firms claiming to offer a four-day week are in fact still working a 35-hour week but compressed into four days. Even where hours are reduced, there are potential risks associated with the stress and rushed nature of trying to compress a weeks' work into less time.

Nevertheless, interest in this area is only likely to grow. Both the TUC and the Labour Party are currently looking at a four-day week as official policy demands. While it may not be an answer for all workers, a four-day week could certainly be a great benefit to some. And as the history of the working week suggests, once the number of workers enjoying a three-day weekend reaches a critical mass it might become an expected norm across the whole economy, putting pressure on the government to extend it to public service workers as well even if that does mean increasing staff numbers by 20%. The four-day week could be coming to your workplace, perhaps sooner than you think.


The IPA's full report on a four-day week, in partnership with FES, is available to download here.


Patrick Briône is Head of Policy & Research at the IPA

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