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Can the four day week put an end to burnout?

Article by Eugene Farrell, Chair - Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA UK)

UK companies have embarked on the world’s biggest trial of a four day working week with no loss of pay. In return, employees have pledged to maintain 100% productivity.

More space for work/life balance can be important. But the four day week is not a panacea.

The six month project will see more than 3,300 employees at 70 companies work a four day week with no loss of pay. The pilot is running until the end of this year among a variety of employers, ranging from a seaside fish and chip shop to finance, construction, education and IT businesses. The organiser, 4 Day Week Global, is leading the scheme alongside Cambridge and Oxford universities, Boston College, Autonomy and the 4 Day Week Campaign.

Researchers are tracking the progress of participants in terms of their wellbeing (stress and burnout), productivity, the changes in environmental footprint (travel and energy use) and issues like what happens to gender equality.

The principle of the four day week is getting a great deal of interest from governments internationally, with pilots going ahead in Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealan. Iceland previously ran a scheme where working hours were cut to 35-36 each week for 2,500 workers. An analysis of the outcomes showed how there had been rises in both productivity and wellbeing. Scotland now plans to offer the four day arrangement to its public sector workers (although, this will be as compensation for lower wages).

The 4 Day Week website highlights the reasoning behind its campaign: “The UK works longer hours than most of Europe. It is not making us more productive. It is making us stressed, over-worked and burnt out.

“The four-day week challenges the current model of work and helps companies move away from simply measuring how long people are ‘at work’, to a sharper focus on the output being produced. 2022 will be the year that heralds in this bold new future of work.”

Research backs up the value of shorter working hours to UK staff. A survey by Censuswide for ClickUp found that almost a third were “actively looking for a four-day week” or have already agreed one with their employer.

Employees get more quality of life; employers have a way to shift to an output-focused deal, a means of improving productivity. This is the key to business interest. As the CEO of 4 Day Week Global has put it: “more and more companies are recognising that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge.”

The Covid-19 experience in itself was a huge experiment in the impact of home working and more time for friends and family. What was clear from that was how differently people reacted. For some, more free time was a golden opportunity; for others it only heightened their sense of isolation.

The four day week will certainly improve satisfaction levels for a proportion of the workforce, provide more of a release valve for pressures. But more time off is not going to be the simple answer to the UK’s challenges around stress and mental ill-health.

It’s very clear in the trial that employers expect to maintain — and believe they can raise — levels of productivity. In other words, many staff will find they’re under more pressure to deliver outputs and results in the four days. As we all know, holidays can be a welcome relief, but they don’t mean anything has changed when we go back to our routines: there’s often only more stress and the need to catch-up. A healthy balance for employees happens when organisations understand the pressures, are willing to listen to individual concerns and be flexible in everyday ways, when there’s a culture of trust and support.

HR and employers need to be clear about what offering shorter hours actually means in practice. Encouraging good mental health isn’t so simple as offering more flexibility, less formality in how we work, as we’ve seen from more people working from home.

On the surface WFH means flexibility, more time for family and friends. But it also means no divide between home and work. Sometimes a greater sense of pressure. Isolation. More people working longer without noticing. And what about when extra time at home only exacerbates worries and concerns around relationships or finances?

Four day weeks may well be a significant part of the future of work for many, but in terms of wellbeing it’ll just be one factor in a complicated picture where listening and understanding individual situations, and how they are changing, will continue to be critical.

    Eugene Farrell MBPsS, BSc, DCRT is chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA UK), and mental health lead for AXA Health. He is a specialist in the development and provision of mental health, counselling and wellbeing support services in the corporate and SME sectors, including: workplace management of mental health; psychological risk management; policy development; training.

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