A campaign to reduce the standard working week from 40 hours to 32 is gaining momentum. It has the backing of Fórsa, Ireland’s largest public-sector union, and it’s being promoted by Four Day Week Ireland, which carried out a successful six-month pilot study in 2022.
“It involved workers receiving 100% of their pay in return for 100% of their productivity and 80% of their time,” says the chair of Four Day Week Ireland, Kevin Donoghue.
“We believed this would benefit employees, employers, their families and their communities.”
The study involving 12 companies proved them right. At its conclusion, 100% of employees indicated they preferred the reduced work schedule and all 12 companies planned to continue with a four-day week.
Of the seven companies that provided data on revenue, six had experienced revenue growth. All of the companies that tracked energy usage found it had reduced.
Employee wellbeing also improved. There were fewer reports of stress, burnout, fatigue or work-family conflict. Average sleep times increased from 7.02 hours a night to 7.72.
Women appeared to benefit most, citing greater life satisfaction, larger gains in sleep time and feeling more secure in their employment.
“The four-day week is better for workers across almost every conceivable metric,” says the general secretary of Fórsa, Kevin Callinan.
“They are happier, healthier and less stressed. They sleep more, spend more time with family and friends and report higher levels of work and life satisfaction.”
What’s happening in Ireland is part of a larger international conversation. The Irish pilot was part of a collaboration with Four Day Week Global and ran in parallel with a similar pilot in Britain, which involved 70 companies, with 86% of them stated they were likely to continue with the four-day week policy.
Another compelling study took place in Iceland between 2015 and 2019. Some 2,500 employees reduced their working hours from 40 to 35 and it was so successful that approximately 90% of Iceland’s working population has since followed suit.
Joe O’Connor is one of those leading the conversation about the four-day week. He was working for Fórsa when the Haddington Road Agreement was being negotiated in 2018.
“The agreement asked people to work additional hours for no extra pay at a time when other countries were going in the other direction,” he says.
He surveyed union members and was struck by the findings.
“Respondents who had already reduced their hours often said they were getting the same amount of work done,” he says.
“They were just as productive. Their responsibilities and expectations were the same. It was only their take-home pay that was different.”
This led O’Connor to launch Four Day Week Ireland in 2019. He went on to become CEO of 4 Day Week Global and is now the director of the Work Time Reduction Centre of Excellence which works to support businesses in adopting reduced working hours.
“A century ago, as a result of the productivity enhancements brought about by the industrial revolution, we as a society were able to move from working six days a week to five and a half, and then five,” he says.
“Since then, we have seen changes we could scarcely have imagined possible, with emails, digital communications and all sorts of advancements in technology. Yet we’re still working the same average working week. We have the productive and technological capacity to achieve a better work/life balance.”
Our collective experience of the pandemic convinced him of that.
“It dislodged deeply embedded norms, turning things like the five-day week and the eight-hour day on their heads,” he says. “We’re now asking if it’s appropriate to be still working five days a week in 2023. It’s now part of the mainstream discussion about the future of work.”
Focussing on productivity appears key to the four-day week’s success.
“Parkinson’s Law says that a task will expand to fill the time available, but the opposite is also true,” says O’Connor. “When you take steps to address issues such as overlong and unnecessary meetings, digital distractions and time wasting, it’s possible to get the same standard of work done in less time.”
For too long, we associated time spent at the office with productivity.
“We subscribed to the idea that the more hours we spent at work, the more productive we were,” says Donoghue. “We saw working long hours as something to be praised and admired. That led to a culture of prioritising work at the expense of other aspects of life. The four-day week pilot has shown that working fewer hours needn’t have a negative impact on productivity.”
Margaret Cox is the director of ICE Group, a recruitment, training and outsourced HR and payroll business based in Galway.
Employing 68 people, it was one of the first companies in Ireland to adopt a four-day week policy. She has since co-authored a book about the experience titled The 3-Day Weekend.
“We were coming up to our 50th anniversary in 2019 and wanted to do something special,” says Cox.
“We realised that what we wanted was for our employees to have a three-day weekend so that they had a proper opportunity to relax and rejuvenate so that they were ready to give 100% when they returned to work.”
She and four members of her team examined the idea, troubleshooting for potential problems and brainstorming possible solutions before committing to a six-month trial.
“We asked each department of the business to decide if they wanted to work Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday and then we went for it,” says Cox.
Over the course of those six months, they eliminated all sorts of time-wasting activities.
“We no longer invite Tom, Dick and Harry to meetings when we only need Tom,” says Cox.
“All meetings have an agenda, a start and finish time and clear outcomes. People are only CC’d in emails if they absolutely have to be. Mobile phones aren’t kept on desks. Nobody checks Facebook in the middle of the day. You’d be surprised how small changes like this shave an hour or two off every day. All of a sudden, you’re getting more done and there’s no need to work on the fifth day.”
Such changes have made a difference to her bottom line.
Productivity increased by 27% in the first year and we had greater turnover and profitability.
“Employee wellness scores have risen by 33% and there’s been a reduction in absenteeism and attrition. It’s been almost four years since we introduced a four-day week and it’s transformed our business and the lives of all who work here.”
O’Connor believes it’s only a matter of time before most businesses adopt a four-day week.
“We’re at the early adaptor stage now and business leaders are only beginning to realise that offering a four-day week gives them a significant competitive advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. But as more companies do it and as employees see how transformative it is in terms of their work/life balance, it’s inevitable the transition to a four-day week will continue.”
After all, the five-day week wasn’t introduced overnight.
“It took pioneering business leaders like Henry Ford and unions bargaining for it for it to become the norm,” says O’Connor.
The same could happen with the four-day week.
“It could shift the priorities for the Irish workforce,” says Callinan.
“Work is important but we have put it ahead of everything else for too long. The four-day week will give us more time for what matters most, our families, our communities and ourselves.”