Flexible Working and the Four-Day Week Around Europe

Posted on: April 12th, 2023

Not so long ago, you may remember that we were discussing the ‘Great Resignation’, also known as the ‘Big Quit’, when a large number of employees voluntarily resigned from their jobs en masse, beginning in early 2021 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, with most of the European workforce having taken up employment again (and allegedly having just changed jobs, rather than completely stopped working), the world of work is having another shake-up with talk of several sectors and countries permanently adopting a four-day working week.

A trial of the four-day week has begun in Scotland, while Wales is considering it; Spain ran a a pilot project last December and a similar pilot was started in Belgium in November 2022. And in Germany, home of the shortest average working week at 34.2 hours (according to the World Economic Forum (WEF)), both employers and Trades unions are keen to start a trial, although with just start-ups at the moment actually adopting a shorter working week.

Iceland, not in the EU but part of the EEA, ran a pilot between 2015 and 2019 of a reduction in the working week to 35 or 36 hours, with nearly 90 per cent of the working population now having reduced hours or other accommodations. Meanwhile in Sweden, the four-day week was tested with mixed results, with some larger employers, such as carmaker Toyota, choosing to keep the reduced hours for their workers.

So, how might working fewer hours each week impact on levels of workplace conflict? At its very simplest and using the just-in results from the U.K.’s own Four-Day Work Week Pilot [1], it could impact quite positively. The pilot looked at the effects of working four days a week within about 60 companies and around 3,000 workers. The study found that workers who reduced their hours in this way experienced less burnout, stress, anxiety, fatigue, and sleep problems. In our experience, these are a lot of the personal challenges that could dispose people to manage conflict situations less well, and ultimately lead to fall-outs and a need for help with resolution. There is then of course a potential split within certain workplaces between workers who can and workers who cannot avail of the shorter working week, with the inevitable jealousies and claims of unfair treatment from some.

And how about people who define themselves very much by their job, and who feel very connected to their work, might there not also be a problem with decreasing the amount of days spent actually enjoying that part of their life? And with friendships and social groupings also being formed around work, might the reduced week not impact poorly on some people whose social connection relies on being with work colleagues?    

Employers in the UK study were also found to benefit from the reduced working days. Companies’ revenue either stayed broadly the same or actually rose 1.4 per cent on average, employees were far less likely to quit than before the trial, and there was a 65 per cent reduction in the number of sick days taken.

All in all, the indications of a four-day week are that, importantly, it seems throughout Europe to be mostly a welcome adjustment to the standard 40-hour regime, and that at least for UK workers, it can definitely lead to a less stressed, healthier and more engaged workforce: arguably one which, provided everyone can have a sense of being treated fairly, can contribute not just to well-being but also to productivity.   

[1] https://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/The-results-are-in-The-UKs-four-day-week-pilot.pdf


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