Four-day working week: What kind of madness is this!?

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On the surface, it’s a unicorn for employees while striking fear into the heart of employers.

Working fewer hours for the same pay must surely result in only one winner. But recent research and trials show that there are several pros and cons for each party and that a four-day week yields interesting – and some surprising – results.

A four-day week used to only be mentioned in the same breath as part-time work. But the pandemic has shifted our priorities and expectations when it comes to working hours with a much greater societal emphasis on employee well-being, work/life balance and job happiness.

We have been reading two recent studies and subsequent white papers published by the University of Cambridge and Henley Business School (Check us out), so let’s summarise them so you don’t have to read the whole thing like we did…

The Cambridge research was the world’s largest trial of a four-day working week where companies committed to a six-month trial of a 20% reduction in working hours for all staff. And with zero reduction in wages. That could be a four-day week or it could be six or eight less hours a week. The Henley white paper followed previous research in 2019 as well as looking at how thought processes around flexible working have shifted since the pandemic.

The Cambridge study involved 61 UK organisations across the UK and saw around 2,900 employees dropping a full day (or equivalent in hours). The types of organisations involved was wide-ranging, including online retailers, financial service providers, consultants, the housing sector, and those in IT, skincare, recruitment, hospitality, marketing and healthcare.

The Henley study involved more than 2,000 employees and 500 business leaders, post-pandemic, including those already working a four-day week. Its aim was to find whether attitudes towards a four-day working week have changed, and in terms of flexible working, is this still preferable to other flexible work options.


It’s easy to assume that all the benefits uncovered would be in the employees’ favour. You might be surprised to learn that that it’s a bit more nuanced than that…

  • Better work/life balance and improved health and mental well-being: the Cambridge study found that people used the extra time for things and chores they normally had to do at the weekend, therefore saving their weekends for more appealing leisure activities, hobbies and greater social time.
    • 62% said they found a better work and social life balance.
    • 60% were more able to mix work with their care responsibilities.
    • 71% of employees reported lower levels of “burnout”.
    • 39% of staff felt less stressed than at the start of the trial.
    • 78% in the Henley study felt less stressed at work overall.
  • Reduction in sick days: researchers found a 65% reduction in sick days, and a 57% fall in the number of staff leaving participating companies, compared to the same period the previous year.
  • Improved productivity: it might sound counter intuitive but condensing the work week into fewer hours did see an upturn in productivity in many cases. The Cambridge study found that revenue barely changed for the 23 businesses who could provide data and in fact increased marginally by 1.4% on average. 64% of the Henley study reported an increase in productivity.
  • Financial and environmental impact: parents in particular found they could save money on childcare costs, and a reduction in travelling meant fewer cars on the road – 67% of employees in the Henley study said they would drive their car less. The Henley study also found that by offering a four-day week, businesses are saving more than £100 billion which equates to around 2.2% of total turnover.
  • Staff incentive: a four-day or 32-hour week is an attractive incentive to potential employees. Plus, companies could use the reduction in hours with no reduction in pay as a way to avoid pay rises.
  • Less attrition: happier staff are much less likely to leave a company, flying in the face of the great resignation, and saving companies time and money in replacing and onboarding new staff.
  • Business efficiencies: a change in working hours and patterns meant that systems needed to be more efficient, with meetings reduced, email chains truncated and more streamlined processes to account for time when some staff would be absent.


Well, this sounds like a win win situation right!? Hold your horses because it’s worth us mentioning, the companies in the studies did report some less favourable outcomes…

  • Not workable for every business or employee: some types of business found it difficult to accommodate a reduction in hours. Restaurants for example. And even within certain types of business, there were some roles that struggled to reduce hours. It didn’t seem fair that some employees could work a four-day week whilst others couldn’t.
  • Break in continuity: for those roles that needed to be covered by a colleague and therefore some kind of handover, if this wasn’t consistent or was ill-prepared, it led to a break in continuity and performance.
  • Reduced productivity: yes, productivity makes it onto both lists. Just as some companies found it focused their employees, others found their employees felt micro-managed to make sure they were sticking to their side of the bargain – and this can be a big turn off for staff. If they feel they’re not being trusted, they’re less likely to put the effort in.
  • Customer care: those businesses that offer customer service need to be available when their customers need them. Depending on staff levels, this could mean a downturn in customer satisfaction – no one likes being on hold endlessly.
  • Accessibility to businesses: a four-day week or reduced hours is easier for large businesses to implement financially, because they are more likely to have (or find) a budget for trialling this kind of thing. Small businesses have less red tape and systems so it could be easier for them to implement administratively, but not financially.


But on the whole, organisations found ways to make the four-day week work. Some dropped a whole day and had a three-day weekend, some did this but on a rota basis. Others, such as those within hospitality, considered the difficulty of reducing hours in busy times and made it seasonal instead, working with their peak times.

One size definitely doesn’t fit all, so the businesses had to make it fit their models. For some this meant adding conditions to the reductions in hours, such as agreeing to be called in if absolutely necessary, or taking fewer holiday days. This was completely business dependent though.

Both studies concluded that a four-day working week – or its equivalent in hours – is a good thing. Each business would need to find the best way to make it work for them and there would be challenges along the way – how do part-time staff fit in, for example? But, on the whole, it’s a thumbs up from organisations.

At the end of the Cambridge trial, managers said they couldn’t imagine going back to a five-day week. Organisations hoped the four-day week would become a reality and the researchers were buoyed by the positivity they met.


So what would a four-day week look like for your business? With some proper planning, it might just be worth a trial run to see what difference it makes to the quality of life of your staff, the quality of work they produce, and the quality of your bottom line.

Talk to us today about your employer flexibility options and we can tell you so much more about what we see in the market. The Recruitment South East team talk to candidates every hour of every day, so if you’re not quite finding the right people, let us help you adjust and become an employer candidates want to work for.