Catherine Conlon: Could a four-day working week save our health service?

As doctors and nurses leave Ireland in droves for jobs with better conditions and pay, Catherine Conlon asks if fewer hours for the same salary would entice them to stay
Catherine Conlon: Could a four-day working week save our health service?

The pandemic years have seen widespread changes in the workplace with working from home becoming the norm. 

Covid-19 has also focused minds on a very real phenomenon that hurts productivity: burnout. 

Nowhere has that been more evident than in the healthcare sector. 

Doctors and nurses are leaving Ireland in their droves for better pay and better working conditions. 

Could a move to a four-day working week - reduced hours for the same pay – reduce burnout and alleviate the real problems in recruiting into the sector?

Companies are beginning to run trials that assess the effects of a four-day working week. 

But the devil is in the detail. Not all four-day weeks are created the same. 

Some involve working longer hours in four days for the same pay. 

Others offer employees the same salaries for spending less time at the office.

Could a move to a four-day working week - reduced hours for the same pay – reduce burnout and alleviate the real problems in recruiting into the sector? Picture: iStock
Could a move to a four-day working week - reduced hours for the same pay – reduce burnout and alleviate the real problems in recruiting into the sector? Picture: iStock

Trials for four-day working weeks have been happening across the globe for a while. 

The largest took place in Iceland between 2015-2019, where the whole idea was to work shorter hours for the same pay. 

An evaluation found that productivity remained the same or improved in most workplaces.

Around 30 UK companies are currently taking part in a six-month trial of a four-day working week, where employees’ working hours are reduced to 32 hours per week. 

Productivity and well-being are then monitored to assess the impact of this change. Wages are not affected by the reduced hours as workers are encouraged to work at 100% productivity for 80% of the time.

The Scottish and Spanish governments also launched four-day working week pilots in January and not-for-profit, 4 Day Week Global, is set to perform similar trials in Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand this year.

In Ireland, at least 17 companies have signed up for a six-month trial of a four-day working week. 

These companies began trialling the measure for six months from February 2022. 

A relaxed day means less stress going to bed and the option of sleeping on in the morning and catching up on missed sleep.
A relaxed day means less stress going to bed and the option of sleeping on in the morning and catching up on missed sleep.

Irishman, Joe O Connor, the 4 Day Week Global programme manager says the proposed structure for the four-day working week shifts companies’ focus away from how long people spend at work, to focus on their output and the value of their work instead.

To date, there has been little evidence of Government support for the model. The exception is the Department of the Environment, which is seeking proposals on the feasibility of moving its staff to a four-day working week. 

If adopted, it would become the first government department to fully endorse and implement the reduced working week and would send a signal to other sectors about the benefits of flexible working hours and work-life balance.

The four-day week gives people an extra day of free time to enjoy. This could mean more time for hobbies, exercise, planning healthy meals and getting mundane chores achieved. 

It also allows more time for other tasks such as health check-ups needed during the working week. 

What have the four-day working week pilots found?

The Henley Business School in the UK surveyed over 500 business leaders and more than 2,000 employees at the end of 2022, to better understand the impact of the four-day working week on the UK workforce, with interesting results. 

Two-thirds of businesses reported improvements in staff productivity, 78% of staff were happier and 70% of staff less stressed. 

Studies have shown less than half of Irish adults take the recommended guidelines of 30 minutes of vigorous activity 5 days a week. Picture: Thinkstock/PA
Studies have shown less than half of Irish adults take the recommended guidelines of 30 minutes of vigorous activity 5 days a week. Picture: Thinkstock/PA

Fewer staff took sick leave and 63% of business leaders said a four-day working week helped them to attract and retain workers.

A significant number of employees (40%) used the extra day to develop their professional skills and one in four said they used the extra day to volunteer.

The four-day working week was particularly popular with younger generations, with 67% of employees born since 1997 saying it would influence their decision where to work.

In terms of physical health, a really important benefit is better sleep. A relaxed day means less stress going to bed and the option of sleeping on in the morning and catching up on missed sleep.

An extra day off means more time for physical exercise. 

Studies have shown less than half of Irish adults take the recommended guidelines of 30 minutes of vigorous activity 5 days a week. They are sedentary for an average of 5 hours a day during the working week.

More physical activity offers real benefits in terms of disease prevention including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, and dementia.

A four-day working week has been identified as being particularly beneficial for specific groups of employees — including parents, people with mental illness – allowing them to partake in exercise, talking therapies and support groups; and employees with disabilities and chronic health conditions where the extra day out of work gives them an opportunity to recuperate, and attend appointments and health checks.

Are there any drawbacks? 

The Henley Business School study found that 73% of business leaders had concerns about meeting deadlines and maintaining staff. 

It can also be operationally complex to implement. There is the potential for increased stress if employees are expected to work 35 or 40 hours across four days. 

This could lead to decreased productivity and impact employee well-being. Some workers feel emotional distress if the company decides to revert to the five-day working week after the trial period.

In healthcare, a sector teetering on the verge of post-pandemic collapse, what would young doctors and nurses say to the option of a 32 to 37.5-hour week over four days, offered at the same rate of pay? 

Would it have an impact in terms of increased productivity, better work-life balance and a less stressed, overworked, sleep-deprived workforce? 

Would it be likely to have an impact on the hordes of young healthcare workers jumping on the next flight to Sydney or Vancouver?

Dr Catherine Conlon is Senior Medical Officer in the Department of Public Health, St Finbarr’s Hospital Cork and former Director of Human Health and Nutrition, safefood. Her book ‘Modern Culture and Wellbeing’ was published by Veritas in 2020.

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