Analysis: this might be a good time to re-examine long-standing assumptions about how and when we work

In 1964, The Beatles sang "Eight Days a Week", a title supposedly derived from a chauffer's complaint about how hard he had to work. There is now growing momentum to cut this particular working week in half, with numerous calls to shift from a five day to a four-day workweek.

Although calls for a four-day week gained steam during the pandemic, this idea was being taken seriously in many parts of the world well before Covid hit. France instituted a a 35-hour working week more than 20 years ago. Iceland conducted a series of studies of work schedules from 2015 to 2019 that moved from a five day, 40-hour week to a four-day, 35 to 36 hour week with no reduction in pay. These experiments were so successful that over 85% of Iceland’s workforce now either works shorter hours or works in a setting where the right to shorter hours is guaranteed.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, a campaign has been launched to make a four-day working week the standard arrangement across the economy without any loss of pay.

The benefits for workers of a shortened workweek are obvious, but it turns out that organisations also benefit. There is compelling evidence that shorter workweeks lead to higher levels of productivity. Even in Japan, a country notorious for deaths from overwork, shortened work weeks in Microsoft’s Japanese operations lead to a 40% increase in productivity.

A four-day working week boosts productivity and employee health, well-being and satisfaction so you might wonder why it is not universal. Part of the problem lies in work cultures that celebrate long hours and devotion to work. Elon Musk has long claimed that people need to work 80-100 hours a week to effect big changes; he said that he worked 120 hours a week and employees worked 100 hours a week while Tesla was ramping up production of its Model 3.

Interestingly, many professional employees claim or even pretend to work 80 hours a week. However, their managers cannot seem to tell the difference between employees who actually work this many hours and employees who only pretend to be chained to their desks.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, career psychologist Sinead Brady on the prospect of a four day working week becoming a reality in Ireland

There are potential downsides to a four-day working week. First, organisations which try to get as close as possible to 40 hours of work per week, with 9 or 10-hour workdays, sometimes find that employees do not have the stamina to work more than eight hours. Some labour laws and contracts call for overtime pay when an employee works more than eight hours in a day so a shorter workweek could be more expensive for employers.

Given the evidence that employees are substantially more productive during a four -day week than a five day one, a case could be made for simply cutting hours worked, transitioning from a 40-hour to a 32-hour week. Spain is currently experimenting with this strategy, shifting from 40 hours to 32 hours per week with no reduction in pay.

There are two groups who stand to lose with a transition from five to four-day woking weeks. First, customers and client often expect to receive full customer service Monday through Friday. Second, there are entire industries, such as mass transit and commercial real estate, that are built to accommodate a five-day workweek and these may experience cash shortfalls.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Gill Stedman looks at how a four-day working week would work at Irish firms

A four-day working week will also change the weekend. The institution of the "weekend" is so strong in some countries that its' effects can be wide-ranging. It is widely believed that the Nazis planned their invasion of Poland for a Friday and their invasion of Russia for a Sunday partly on the belief that British politicians would be away from London on the weekend.

If nearly half the week now becomes the "weekend", will this change this treasured period? It probably will, and it is too soon to predict what the new weekend will be like, especially if different organisations adopt different definitions of the working week (will you work Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday?). Perhaps work on Saturdays or Sundays will no longer be out of bounds if there is a three-day block of days off available for most employees?

The nature of work is arguably changing as a result of our year-long experiment with remote work and this might be an opportune time to re-examine long-standing assumptions about how and when we work. Enjoy your three day weekend!


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ