13 March 2024

Back to work! Britain can’t afford a four-day week

By Jimmy Nicholls

‘It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. So goes the wisdom of Cyril Northcote Parkinson, whose opening line for a piece in The Economist has become a dictum of workplace inefficiency.

Even those unfamiliar with the adage will know the experience. Coming back from lunch with only a few tasks until you head home, you eke them out between a few cups of tea, doing some shopping on Amazon and taking regular breaks to scroll Instagram. 

Yet it’s the corollary of Parkinson’s Law that’s increasingly being tested. Can the standard working week that Dolly Parton sang so memorably about be squeezed into four days rather than five? Campaigners are increasingly vocal in their belief that the answer is yes.

Earlier this month, the think tank Autonomy and the 4 Day Week Campaign called on employers to pilot a four-day week over August as part of the ‘4ugust’ trial. It follows a similar effort launched in 2022, where about 60 companies tested the idea over six months. According to a report analysing its effects, staff were happy to spend less time working, reporting better physical and mental health, less burnout and greater life satisfaction.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that workers enjoyed being paid the same for less time on the clock. But more striking is that for most of the trial participants productivity wasn’t hampered, with some even reporting greater productivity due to staff feeling more focused.

Evidence from the public sector partially backs up this experience. South Cambridgeshire District Council has been running four-day weeks since the start of 2023, first with desk staff and latterly with bin collectors. The Liberal Democrats leading the council argue that it is working, pointing to savings from reduced reliance on agency staff as recruitment has become easier. 

The Conservative opposition claim performance is being propped up by council staff working beyond four days, and noting that in some areas performance has declined. But it’s not discouraged other public servants from adopting the model, with the Scottish Government launching its own four-day pilot at the start of this year, and civil servants in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs campaigning for the shift.

Being able to do more with less is the essence of economic progress. But reading Autonomy’s report into its own scheme, there are reasons for hesitancy.

Despite the modest size of the 2022 cohort, it’s claimed that the trial was the biggest ever attempted. And as King’s College London professor Michael Sanders noted in the Financial Times: ‘The study is a self-selecting group of employers and, within them, a self-selecting group of employees’.

Where productivity has been maintained it is because work intensity has been increased, sometimes by staff cutting out busywork. The implication is that many were previously frittering away time on what David Graeber termed ‘bullshit jobs’, or at the very least, bullshit tasks. An employer might well think it would be better to reallocate this time than do away with it.

Yet the main challenge to four day weeks is not that they don’t work for some people some of the time. The problem is that for a country like Britain that has experienced stagnant productivity for over a decade, it hardly seems the time to be taking longer breaks. Indeed, the Centre for Policy Studies calculates that the cost of introducing the measure at our current productivity levels would be £45bn, the equivalent of a 10p rise in the basic rate of income tax.

According to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the average annual productivity growth rate between 2007 and 2019 was 0.2%, having dropped from around 2% in the three decades before the financial crash. ONS data shows things haven’t changed since the pandemic, and there are no signs things are about to improve.

There are few signs that politicians will be restraining public spending, nor that the public wants that. And even for sceptics of economic growth, a country’s ability to produce and sell goods and services is what enables it to fund public services, including meeting the growing demand for healthcare as people live longer, or the greater military risks from countries like Russia.

So while 58% of the British public expect the four-day week to become the normal way of working by 2030, according to a Survation poll from last May, this support has to be squared with public enthusiasm for improved public services.

While you shouldn’t discount the benefits of people having more time away from work, cutting back on working hours while fixing productivity is akin to a bodybuilder trying to shed fat while building muscle. It’s not as delicate a phrase as Parkinson’s, but it’s a lot easier to build strength while eating like a hog.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Jimmy Nicholls is a trade journalist, politics commentator and host of the Right Dishonourable podcast.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.