Is Australia ready for a four-day work week?

While four-day work weeks are the norm for employees in some countries around the world, it may be some time before this becomes a reality for workers in Australia

Earlier this year, some 20 companies across Australia and New Zealand in industries ranging from finance to fashion participated in a four-day work week pilot study. Trials like these have been running for some time, led by 4 Day Week Global: a not-for-profit coalition of business leaders, community strategists, work designers, and advocacy thought-leaders.

A four-day week, they argue, isn’t about having an extra day off. Instead, they say this shift is about delivering more productivity and meeting customer service standards while delivering on personal and team business goals and objectives in a way that is more efficient and sustainable for people and the planet. But is a four-day work week (without a pay cut) simply too good to be true?

Does a four-day week actually increase productivity?

An essential part of the conversation around the adoption of a four-day work week is the potential impact on productivity. Yet proponents of a four-day work week often claim that productivity need not be affected, and research from trials and experiments around the world show productivity can actually improve.

Read more: How should leaders manage hybrid working relationships?

For example, one trial in Iceland, in which workers reduced their work week to four days but were paid the equivalent of five days, took place between 2015 and 2019. Productivity either remained the same or improved in most workplaces. Reykjavík City Council ran the trial, and the national government eventually included more than 2500 workers (roughly one per cent of Iceland's working population). Other trials across the world, including in Spain and New Zealand, have delivered similar results.

Four-day work weeks in Australia

Despite evidence for the shift to a four-day work week, many Australian employers seem reluctant to challenge the status quo. Some employers are pushing for a full-time return to the office, and this could be a telling sign of which industries and companies might be the most (and least) likely to adopt a four-day work week in the future.

As with flexible working arrangements through COVID-19, the adoption of a four-day work week will largely depend on the type of work and industry, says Karin Sanders, Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School. For example, a knowledge worker may find it much easier to shift their working hours than someone in construction, hospitality, education or care sectors. For some of these professions (like construction) Prof. Sanders says working on Saturday morning is still very much a reality of working life.

Karin Sanders UNSW Business School-4 day work week.jpg
UNSW Business School's Professor Karin Sanders says the adoption of a four-day work week will largely depend on the type of work and industry involved. Image: supplied

How much of the workday is actually productive?

The ability to improve performance by working less doesn’t seem so far-fetched based on the evidence. Previous studies show most workers don’t work eight straight hours a day, and employees working six-hour workdays are just as productive as those who spend eight or more hours in the office. So not only is working tirelessly for eight hours straight unsustainable, but working shorter hours and taking small breaks enhances performance.

And with the benefit of hindsight over the events of the past two years, workers have proven they are just as productive in working from home. As remote working varies considerably around the world depending on technology adoption, culture and industries, so too will the adoption of a four-day work week, says Prof. Sanders

How Scandanavian countries approach the four-day work week

While a five-day work week is still very much the status quo in Australia, the concept of a four-day work week is gradually gaining more acceptance, particularly in Scandinavian countries that generally pay more attention to employee wellbeing.

Read more: Lessons from the Great Resignation in how to find meaning at work

“There is a huge incentive for a four-day work week in hospitals in Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Finland, and Norway, where they treat it like a mental health issue,” Prof. Sanders explains. “Workers need more time to spend on caring responsibilities, for example. And while the hospital is always staffed, everyone works four days a week. It should be noted that, in these countries, both women and men work four days a week and working part-time or being a 'housewife' is less common in these countries.”

However, adopting a four-day work week for the same pay also depends on individual targets set by employers. “If you work in a hospital, you work with patients for a four-day work week. But for instance, if we in academia work just four days but with the same amount of research targets and teaching expectations, then we might feel more strained. If you try to fit in 35 hours of work in four days and keep the same productivity and targets, some people will need to work harder and might get overworked with increasing numbers of burnout over those four days,” Prof. Sanders says.

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A knowledge worker may find it easier to shift to a four-day work week than a construction worker. Image: Shutterstock

This essentially comes down to work outputs, which was the focus of a recent case from Belgium where employees won the right to a four-day work week without loss of salary. Instead of being judged on the hours worked, they will be judged on their overall performance and output.

Is a four-day work week even a consideration in Australia?

If Australian companies truly want to improve the wellbeing and mental health of employees and reduce absenteeism and burnout in industries like healthcare and education, Prof. Sanders says one way to do this is to adopt a four-day work week without employees having to sacrifice their pay.

In countries like the Netherlands, she says this approach is very common for couples with small children where parents work two (80 per cent) jobs. This allows for more time to be spent with their children while working parents also experience less stress. “Both parents have a four-day work week, which means they only need childcare for three days a week. This schedule is also used in many other countries,” explains Prof. Sanders.

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But Professor Sanders doesn’t expect a four-day work week will be the norm in Australia anytime soon. “The stereotype in most industries is that if you go down in hours, people think that you are not ambitious, are not going for promotion, and are not committed to the company. So, employers will see that moving to a four-day work week as a signal of not being committed,” she says.

So while a four-day working week may be better and healthier in both theory and practice, it may be some time before this becomes a reality for workers in Australia.

Karin Sanders is a Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School. For more information, please contact Prof. Sanders directly.


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