Job creation, a productivity boost and improvements in staff mental health would be the primary benefits of moving the UK public sector to a four-day week, according to future-of-work specialists Autonomy.

In a 30 August report, the think tank says that rolling out a four-day week across public-sector professions would pave the way for an extensive recruitment programme to top up man hours. That effort would bring in between 300,000 and half a million new hires, at a net cost of £9 billion once the subsequent productivity and mental health gains are realised – equivalent to just 6% of the UK’s total public-sector salary bill for 2019, or 1% of total public-sector spending. (Jones et al, 30 August 2020)

Compiled in partnership with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the research notes that public-sector employment “is concentrated in Scotland, the North of England and Wales, pointing to the potential regional effects of a 32-hour working week policy”.

It explains: “Consider the so-called ‘Red Wall’ areas, including Barnsley, Bradford and Doncaster: around 20% of overall employment in these and surrounding areas exists in the public sector. Outside of London, the South East and West have relatively low rates of public-sector employment (with some exceptions). A 32-hour working week in the public sector will therefore benefit those regions that have been worst hit by unemployment and deprived public services during the austerity decade and the Covid crisis.”

Meanwhile, it adds: “In areas with lower public-sector employment, procurement based on select criteria could be utilised to encourage private-sector contractors to adopt shorter working weeks as part of working agreements. Using tendering processes to give preference to firms that meet work-life balance targets – and in general, labour practices and hourly wages that go beyond the legal minimum – public sector organisations across the country could embed reduced working hours as a new standard across the economy.”

Autonomy director of research Will Stronge said: “The time has come for a four-day working week and the public sector should act as the pioneer for it, both as employer and as procurer of services. To help tackle the unemployment crisis we are facing this winter, a four-day week is the best option for sharing work more equally across the economy and creating much needed new jobs.” (Autonomy Press Office, 30 August 2020)

He added: “The four-day week makes so much sense as it would boost productivity, create new jobs and make us all much happier and healthier.”

Is Autonomy’s vision feasible and workable? And should it happen?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “So many proponents of the four-day week identify productivity gains as the primary driver. The thrust of the argument is essentially a business case: people are more focused on delivering outputs, so there’s no productivity loss from reduced working hours – therefore, workers should be paid exactly the same.

“However,” she points out, “what Autonomy are arguing for here is something far bigger. Much in the manner of Jacinda Ardern, they are saying that the economic case should not be the only argument that people pay attention to, and that there is a significant wellbeing case to pursue as well. We’ve already seen improved work-life balance evidenced among the many people who have worked from home during the Covid-19 crisis.

“So, there are mental health gains in terms of the autonomy that people have acquired, and the control they feel they now have over their working day. And interestingly, if you look at the benefits – in terms of reducing days lost to illness, or lowering people’s use of stretched NHS mental health services – the business case comes right back in.”

Cooper notes: “In relation to Autonomy’s research, perhaps we should also acknowledge the success of Finland’s two-year trial of universal basic income, which took place over 2017 and 2018. In addition to an uptick in financial wellbeing among recipients, the experiment led to improved mental health and cognitive functioning.” (New Scientist, 6 May 2020)

Even in the pre-Covid era, Cooper highlights, “experts cited mental health as an increasingly important subject for employers to address, and that certainly comes across from the growing organisational demand for relevant training and support. CIPD has pointed out that, during this crisis, there is likely to have been a buildup of post-traumatic stress within the UK workforce [CIPD, 20 May 2020]. That’s just one reason why staff mental health is something that leaders will have to take extremely seriously going forward.”

She adds: “A four-day week could play a vital role in helping leaders tackle mental wellbeing – as long as employers don’t put staff in the sort of position where they will have to use their extra leisure time to earn top-up money. Clearly, that would negate the benefit. This isn’t quite as simple as ‘Let’s all work a little bit less so that others can work a bit more,’ because none of these large-scale solutions ever are simple. But actually taking the big-picture issues into account – which governments have plenty of scope to do in their management of the public sector – must be a good idea.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on delivering outcomes

Source refs:

Jones et al, 30 August 2020

Autonomy Press Office, 30 August 2020

New Scientist, 6 May 2020

CIPD, 20 May 2020