A four-day working week in Wales: The pros, cons, and reality

  • Video report by ITV Cymru Wales reporter Megan Boot. Words by Tom Taylor.

A four-day working week has helped improve productivity and happiness while prompting a drop in sickness rates, according to a business owner in Cardiff.

It comes as a working group, set up by the Welsh Government following calls for a pilot in Wales' devolved public services, released their findings on the pros and cons of a four-day working week after a year of research.

There are two ways to interpret a four-day week. It could mean workers who usually work five days a week completing the same number of hours over four days, or it could mean a shorter working week with the same pay as before.

The working group - established under the Workforce Partnership Council (WPC) - specifically looked at the latter: working a four-day week with no loss of pay or benefits.

Benefits highlights were improved work-life balance, reduced risk of burnout, better physical and mental health, improved recruitment and job satisfaction, greater inclusivity and increased productivity.

However, it also identified a number of risks associated with the policy, including the widening of existing inequalities, financial risks associated with recruiting more workers, undeclared hours of work, service delivery concerns, and team management and development risks.

The Welsh Government may have said there are "no plans" to introduce a four-day week across the public sector in Wales, but that doesn't mean the model is unworkable for some industries.

Chelsea Thompson, from Slunks hair salon in Cardiff, introduced a four-day working week after lockdown, partly to aid with social distancing.

Chelsea said: "After a few months, we noticed the team seemed much happier, productivity was better, sickness was down, their mental health seemed to be better and we just thought 'right, this is working, let's see if we can do it long-term'."

We asked people in Cardiff city centre what they think of a four day working week.

The business made it work by taking on more staff.

She continued: "We've opened the salon more days and everyone's kind of on a mixed shift. It's always rolling, so they know what they're doing week on week. But, it's just four eight-hour days within a week."

Asked if she would change the model now, she said she wouldn't. "I think the team all enjoy it far too much," she said. "I personally enjoy it a lot as well. It's just a really nice energy and atmosphere in the salon."

She added: "I think each industry are going to have their own hurdles to get over to make this work. It's not going to work for everyone unfortunately.

"But, I would really encourage everyone to sit down and look if they can possibly make it work - the pros far outweigh the cons, they definitely have for us.

"The benefits have been that we've got new staff coming in - we've doubled our numbers in the last four years of staff. Our turnover is a lot less, sickness is a lot less and overall wellbeing of the team is much better as well."

Darren Williams is national officer at PCS Union, the largest civil service union. He was one of those involved in the working group.

Darren Williams was part of a working group looking into a four-day working week.

He said: "Workers in Britain work the longest hours anywhere in western Europe and there are obviously gains to be made from things like improved technology at work, gains in terms of a better work-life balance and really spreading those gains more widely than at present.

"Unions in the 19th century campaigned for shorter working hours, in the 20th century for a two-day weekend and in many ways this is the natural conclusion to that because it's about making sure that people's working lives are more manageable and that they have more time to themselves and their families."

Asked how companies can afford to pay people for working less, Mr Williams said: "Well, the idea is that technology meant that there are productivity gains available and it's a question of ensuring that those gains are spread more evenly among the workforce.

"So what the working group was looking into was the possibility of reducing working hours without any reduction in pay but on the basis that productivity would be maintained."

He added: "There is a risk that the four-day working week or a shorter working week could be introduced in a way that's unfair or rather exacerbates existing inequalities and that's something that has to be worked into any proposal to take it forward.

"Having said that, nobody has suggested that a four-day working week is a panacea for all the problems in the workplace - inequalities, poor pay and so on - those are things that trade unions and others are committed to addressing. But absolutely there is a recognition that there are dangers in introducing this in a way that's not properly thought through."

Dr Simon Williams, a behavioural scientist and public health researcher at Swansea University, broadly supports the idea of giving people an extra day off per week.

He said: "There are positive impacts for organisations. People are working more productively because they're being asked to work lower hours. There are also gains from a wellbeing perspective, definitely. There's reduction in sick leave. People are working less hours."

However, the psychology lecturer said a big issue with a four-day working week would be the "inequality" of some workers reaping the benefits, while it would not be feasible for others to reduce the number of days they work.

The Welsh Government said there are "no plans" to introduce a four-day week across the public sector in Wales.

It said: "Whilst the working group identified a range of potential benefits, they also highlighted the many complexities involved in adopting a four-day week and the impact these could have on a range of groups and individuals."

Joel James MS, Welsh Conservatives' shadow minister for social partnership, said: “The major problem of the four-day working week is that it cannot be rolled out across every sector, meaning that it will create a two-tier working environment.

"The Welsh Conservatives propose that the same benefits of a four-day working week can be obtained by improving the flexibility workers to take time off to balance family life and other commitments."

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