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It could make people happier and healthier - but would a four-day week work in Ireland?

Proponents say there are a wide range of benefits to the idea – but not everyone is convinced.

IMAGINE YOUR EMPLOYER gave you the following option: you could work for one day fewer every week, without any reduction in your pay.

You’d have a whole extra day to run errands, spend time with your children, or just catch up on your sleep, at no extra cost. It sounds too good to be true. 

In fact, when Galway-based recruitment firm ICE Group announced last month that they were going to bring in a four-day week, employees were initially sceptical.

“Some people genuinely thought it was a joke, that this was some big prank we were playing on them,” company director Margaret Cox told TheJournal.ie, recalling the moment staff were informed the company was giving them an extra day off every week.

“[They thought] how could we possibly do that?”

In this week’s episode of our new Ireland 2029 podcast, we look at why some companies around the world are moving to a four-day work week, how they’re doing it, and what the potential drawbacks are.

To discuss it in studio were TheJournal.ie reporters Sean Murray and Stephen McDermott, director of campaigning at trade union Fórsa Joe O’Connor, director of recruitment firm ICE group Margaret Cox, and MD of Management Support Services and council member of ISME John Barry. 

Hello technology; goodbye five-day week

The idea of a shorter working week has been around for almost as long as the five-day week itself. As long ago as the 1930s, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that societies would move gradually to a 15-hour work week in the future.

Almost a century later, societies are still waiting for any reduction in the standard five-day week, let alone a drop to a third of the hours which people worked in the 1930s.

But while the reduction of hours to such a significant degree might have been wishful thinking by Keynes, the thought that spurred his prediction is something that’s becoming increasingly relevant as time passes: technological advancements leading to less work for people to do.

Proponents of a four-day week argue that as industries become more automated, the idea of a five-day week is becoming more old-fashioned.

Fórsa’s Joe O’Connor says the trade union has carried out research which shows that there is no basis to the “old-school” idea that the number of hours worked correlates to a company’s productivity.

“Some of the countries in Europe that work the lowest hours, like the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavian countries actually have higher productivity,” he tells TheJournal.ie.

“When you look at the UK, they have much higher working hours and lower productivity. Greece have the highest working hours in Europe, but have the lowest level of productivity.”

Social benefits

International research suggests that a reduction in working hours could have direct benefits for companies as their employees become happier.

One of the first companies to try out a four-day working week, Perpetual Guardian, a trust fund management company in New Zealand, found the move had several upsides.

During an eight-week trial of a four-day week, researchers from the University of Auckland and Auckland Institute of Technology monitored the impact the move had on the company’s workers.

The researchers monitored staff satisfaction, motivation and overall productivity and found that staff showed increased commitment, stronger leadership skills, and no loss in overall productivity.

Of course, a four-day work week is not just about maintaining productivity, and proponents argue that there could be more widespread benefits to the idea too.

It’s argued that a greater work-life balance among workers could lead to better mental health among the general population, and that having less people going to work every day would mean less cars on the road, which would reduce carbon emissions.

Such benefits would depend on the more widespread introduction of a four-day week, but on a smaller level, but O’Connor still points to social benefits that could be felt almost immediately for companies who introduced shorter working weeks.

“Research we’ve done with workers in the public sector has shown that people feel they’d have more time to spend with their family, more time for leisure time, more time for caring responsibilities, and more time to give back to the local community,” he explains.

If it is the case that workers can maintain their efficiency and their productivity and also spend less time in work, we think that could have a whole range of benefits, both at an individual level and at a collective level.

Not all industries

But despite the overwhelming evidence in favour of a four-day work week, the idea is not without its problems. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the widespread rollout of the idea is that not all industries are the same.

Some industries are more flexible than others, particularly those which are client-based, but others, like healthcare, the media or the gardaí, require staff to work over long periods and at unsociable hours.

Meanwhile, John Barry of Management Support Services and a council member of the Irish SME Association, argues that cramming a 40-hour week into four days could potentially see employers having to pay more overtime to their workers.

“If you’re going to do 40 hours in four days and people start working a fifth day … people can get in the habit of overtime regularly, which can creep up,” he says.

Meanwhile, Barry suggests that staff might want a four-day flexible week, rather than a four-day week, where the company is closed for the fifth day.

If this were the case, companies would have to recruit additional staff to provide cover on the fifth day, an extra expense to the company.

And he also says that employers are already addressing the issues which proponents of a four-day week, such as more flexible terms of employment for workers and the ability for parents to care for their children for an additional day.

“A lot of employers are addressing home-working and giving people the opportunity to work from home, rather than from the office,” he says.

“In some ways, a four-day week is almost old hat at this stage because dynamic working environments are being created which don’t necessarily focus on days or work days, but on varieties which achieve the same objective.”

In other words, while the idea could have many benefits, don’t count on employers adopting it en masse any time soon.

You can listen to the first episode of Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future in full below:

Full list of providers here 


Source: Ireland 2029/SoundCloud

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