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The Impact of a 4-Day Working Week on Employee Health

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The past decade has seen an increased focus on employee health and well-being. And for good reason, because workers are a company’s most valuable asset. One solution being trialled is the 4-day working week, which if adopted nationally, could have huge benefits for the physical health and well-being of employees, especially those in high-stress or physically demanding jobs.

A 4-day week would give employees an extra day to relax and take time for themselves, potentially improving their health and well-being in the long run. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

This article examines the potential impact of a 4-day working week on employee health and well-being by examining a range of research outcomes and studies. We'll review the potential benefits, drawbacks, and ways to ensure the 4-day working week benefits both employers and employees.

What is a 4-day week?

You might think a 4-day week simply compresses a typical 40-hour week into four days. Sure, that might give you an extra day off, but this is not the 4-day week we're talking about.

The 4-day week, as proposed and being trialled in a wide range of UK companies, is actually a reduction in working hours — down to 28. And that's without a decrease in pay.

While it sounds too good to be true, firms across the UK are implementing 4-day working weeks to benefit employees, increase productivity, and attract talent.

So, are we really seeing a movement towards fewer working hours without reducing take-home pay?


Why is working four days as good as five for employers?

The case for a 4-day week is built on several factors:

  • Technology has streamlined our working practices, minimising paperwork and administration
  • Reduced operating costs (fewer outgoings to run offices, for example)
  • Increase in productivity
  • Improved employee retention

Indeed, 4-day week trials in Iceland were an overwhelming success. Workers reported feeling less risk of burnout and stress, with improved health and work-life balance. And productivity remained either consistent with the previous 5-day week output or increased.

And Microsoft trialled a 4-day week in Japan, with a 40% increase in productivity, greater efficiency in meetings, and happier employees.


How can the 4-day possibly make financial sense?

Research from America’s Stanford University has identified that overworked employees are typically less productive the longer they work — reinforcing the law of diminishing returns.

And while the concept of a 4-day week might seem like the stuff of utopian sci-fi, there's plenty of evidence to demonstrate that working fewer hours makes each employee more productive.

They hypothesised that people's extended presence in the workplace decreases morale, concentration, and loyalty. And they discovered that overworked employees make more mistakes because their attention and focus wane the longer they sit at their desk/operate a machine/complete tasks — and these mistakes are often more costly to correct than the value gained from an individual's extended participation.


Why Manufacturers Should Adopt a 4-Day Working Week

Workers in physically demanding jobs such as manufacturing can benefit greatly from a 4-day working week, especially older or less physically-fit workers. According to a survey by The Engineer, 64% of manufacturing businesses believe that a four-day week will work for their type of business.

Flexible formats such as a smaller number of working days can benefit manufacturers whose machinery needs more start-up time each day, meaning more hours are spent with machines running rather than being switched on. Fewer working hours can also be achieved by implementing staggered days and weekends, rotating the staff in a way that allows them to reduce their working time while keeping the factory running continuously.

Manufacturing firms across the UK are already proving the success of a 4-day week, including The Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry.


What are the pros and cons of a 4-day week?

It sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? A three-day weekend, every week of the working year. And it’s proving a successful work model for many UK businesses.

But, of course, there are pros and cons.


The Pros

Reduced operating costs

Running costs drop if the office is closed for one extra day each week. Additionally, employees spend less on travelling to work and contribute less to air pollution on their daily commute.

Happier employees

Of course, it stands to reason that most employees will get more time to spend with their friends and families. And while having more time can contribute to greater happiness, the 4-day week can increase employee engagement and loyalty.

Additionally, a 4-day working week benefits employers in the long run by increasing employee retention while reducing the cost of recruitment and training new employees.

A 4-Day Work Week Reduces Physical Strain

Jobs that demand intense physical labour have more potential to result in injury, which costs UK businesses over £16.2bn per year.

However, the 4-day week has been proven to reduce physical strain by offering workers more significant rest periods with less exposure to cold, wet, or slippery environments. Workers in dirty environments get longer durations away from chemicals and fumes, which helps reduce the risk of adverse effects from exposure to harmful compounds.

Of course, there are other ways you can help reduce physical strain in workplaces that demand a lot of standing and repetitious movement, such as anti-fatigue matting, which reduces the impact of extended standing.

Fewer Working Days, Better Employee Health

UK-based mental health charity Mind states that 20% of all adults experience mental health problems each week.

And while there are several complex contributing factors, Mind affirms that extended weekends and extra weekly lie-ins can contribute to a decreased impact on mental health.

Indeed, new parents often face difficulties in returning to work as the 9-to-5 schedule makes it more challenging to care for children. A 4-day working week makes it easier for parents to return to work without negatively impacting their health and well-being.

Increased productivity

There are many examples of increased productivity in global companies employing the 4-day working week. For example, New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian observed that employees produced the same output level, with improved job satisfaction, better teamwork, more effective employee engagement, and a boost in company loyalty. 

And they acknowledged that stress levels decreased by as much as 45%.

Improved employee engagement

A trial in a Swedish nursing home explored the effects of fewer working hours on a team of care staff. The test ran between 2015 and 2017 and produced positive outcomes, with fewer sick hours, increased morale, and boosted engagement and staff mental well-being.

And the outcomes for the patients improved as the staff arranged 85% more activities for those in their care.

A reduced carbon footprint

Countries that have trialled shorter working hours have typically observed a reduced carbon footprint, so there could be a distinct environmental benefit to the 4-day week. Fewer days at work means fewer commuting journeys, while large office blocks use less power.

A trial in Utah helped the government departments engaging in the experiment save a staggering $1.8m in energy costs and reduce CO2 emissions by 6000 metric tons — just by closing their office building on Fridays.

If you include the fewer employee journeys, they estimated that they saved 12,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking 2300 cars off the road for an entire year.

Just by cutting out one working day a week.

Improved retention and recruitment

Millennial workers expect greater workplace flexibility in their working pattern, and a 4-day week improved retention and recruitment in 63% of the companies employing this particular working structure.


What Are The Cons of a 4-Day Week?

While there are clear benefits to the 4-day working week on employee health, there are disadvantages — these programmes require ongoing support and technology.

Impact on customer satisfaction

The Utah experiment mentioned above produced many environmental and employee benefits, but there was an impact on customer satisfaction because people could not access particular government services on Fridays.

However, many customer queries can be resolved using AI-powered websites or chatbots, helping address dissatisfaction.

It doesn’t suit every type of business

Service-based businesses that are entirely customer-facing are likely to see a reduction in profit and turnover because they're minimising their operating hours.

Potentially longer hours/greater stress

The 4-day working week structure only works if a company does not demand a compression of 40 hours, which is likely to increase stress and extend the working day to 10 hours.

The true 4-day week experiment is a 28-hour week.


Could a 4-day week solve burnout?

Icelandic trials of the 4-day week between 2015 and 2019 saw improved productivity and customer service, while the well-being of the 2500 participants markedly improved according to stress levels and burnout rates.

In fact, these pilots were so successful that over 80% of Icelandic workers now have a reduced working week.


How many working days are lost to stress in the UK?

According to the HSE, there were 36.8 million lost working days due to illness between 2021 and 2022. And it was stress, depression, and anxiety that accounted for the majority of lost days.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) identified in a 2012 study that conditions related to stress, depression, and anxiety were the leading cause of long-term absence, making up for almost a whopping 30% of lost working time, costing the economy £4bn each year.

So, if the costs of running a 4-day week structure positively impact stress rates, businesses become more productive due to a better work-life balance.


Reducing stress for your workforce

Of course, we all know that some working environments, such as factories and building sites, demand a lot of physical effort from employees. And while the 4-day week might be a long- to mid-term plan, you can make changes in your workplace that help protect your employees' health today.

Check out the FirstMats selection of anti-fatigue mats, workshop mats, forklift truck mats, and anti-slip products. Just a few simple changes in the workplace make a massive difference to your employees’ health and well-being.

Get in touch, and we'll be happy to talk you through our range of safety-first products that help protect your workforce in high-pressure environments.

Thanks for reading.

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Richard O'Connor's Headshot

Richard O'Connor is a Director at First Mats. He has deep knowledge in areas like Manufacturing, Warehousing, Marine, and Health & Safety. Richard's insights have been featured in well-known publications such as Bloomberg Business, The Sun, and Reader's Digest. His blend of industry expertise and passion for sharing makes him a sought-after voice in his fields.

Contact Richard