Four-day week: the social benefits - RSA blog - RSA

Four-day week: the social benefits


  • Work and employment

Lianna Etkind, RSA Central Fellowship Areas and Engagement Manager, explores the social benefits of the four-day week and calls for more participation to create the future of work.

The four-day week is well and truly on the agenda. In the UK, we are halfway through the biggest trial of this way of working that’s ever been undertaken in the world. Additionally, South Cambridgeshire District Council has announced it will begin its own four-day week trial starting in January 2023; the first local authority to do so and guarantee no loss of pay. 

As a Cambridgeshire resident and a long-time advocate for the four-day week, I was thrilled to hear about South Cambridgeshire District Council’s move to a four-day week for its employees.

The eight-hour day, five-day week that many of us work is not a natural fact of life: people and organisations fought to make it happen. Now, with the acceleration of automation reducing, or in some cases, even eliminating some of the work that used to fall to humans, it’s time for the next step towards a shorter workweek.

There’s strong evidence for the benefits of the four-day week: we know it’s better environmentally; it improves gender equality, and it makes people happier and less stressed. More and more, employers are recognising the value of offering a four-day week as a way of making real their commitments to closing the gender pay gap and as a way of attracting talent.

The benefits, however, extend beyond the individual and the employer: when people work fewer hours, it’s good for all of us and for the places we live in.

Benefitting society

It’s widely recognised that for people to engage in public life, people need public space: buildings like libraries, pubs, and community centres where we can be among others. What’s arguably even more important, but discussed less often, is the necessity of time. The government’s Community Life Survey found that work commitments were far and away the biggest barrier to volunteering, with 48 percent citing work as the reason they didn’t volunteer. Work is also a huge barrier to people participating in civic life. Go to a council meeting in almost any area of the country and look around you: you’ll see a lot of grey hair. The average age of a UK councillor is currently 60. Entirely understandable given that the casework, meetings, reading and work of being a councillor can take many hours each week, but bad news for democratic representation. How can the views and attitudes of working-aged people be properly represented if we aren’t sitting at the table when decisions are made? The same is true for magistrates, average age 58.

There’s obviously a huge gender dynamic to this. Domestic responsibilities and caring are statistically more likely to fall to women, leaving us with even less time to participate in public life – it's not surprising that only around a third of councillors in the UK are women.

Time to participate in civic life

But there’s more to democracy than formal political positions. Not a day goes by without a political commentator decrying how atomised we have become, and how our social fabric is frayed as never before. This is borne out by the statistics: whether it’s declining membership of community groups, a fall in interactions with neighbours or our sense of local belonging and trust, social capital in the UK is in decline. The reasons behind this are complex but a lack of time for meaningful connection is certainly a factor. Democracy shrivels when we don’t have the time to engage with the issues, meet people outside our bubble, and think. A four-day week would enable more of us to participate in shaping our places and our future.

Time sovereignty

When people reduce their working hours, not everyone puts these hours into community participation. Some people will spend more time gardening. Some will see friends more often. Some will watch more telly. Some will just slow down and enjoy the sunshine, without the dull thud of a to-do list in their head.

And all that is good. People are generally the best judges of what will make them happy.

Currently, the demands of a thirty-five or forty-hour working week mean that many defer their dreams until retirement, or when their children grow up. What a risk. And what a waste – the skills undeveloped, the pleasures unenjoyed, the friendships never made. Life is short.

Towards the four-day week and a more participatory future

Not every employer will be able to transition to a four-day workweek overnight as South Cambridgeshire has done (although for those who are, the 4 Day Week Campaign has helpful resources about the ‘how’ - more than seventy UK employers are currently trialling a four-day week with no loss of pay). Not every employee is financially able to reduce their working hours. One small but significant step that progressive employers are beginning to take is to advertise all jobs as open to four or five days a week: when Zurich Insurance adopted flexible hiring by default, they saw a 20 percent increase in women applying for senior roles.

As more employers move to shorter working weeks, we will reap the benefits individually and as families. A shorter workweek means more of us with the freedom for leisure, for cooking or craft or sport or pottering. But we will also begin to see a stronger civic life emerge as we reclaim the time and energy to get involved with the people and places around us.

Do you work a four-day week, and how have you found it? What are the challenges facing businesses that want to transition to a four-day week? Let us know your views on the new way of working in the comments below.

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