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Will the four-day working week ever take off? An employer and a business group give their verdicts

A shorter working week benefits workers and the environment alike, but seems unsuited to certain sectors such as healthcare, manufacturing and some professions

The Debate

Margaret Cox, Employer: ‘I used the extra time to take up sea swimming and co-author a book’

I’m often asked why I decided to move my company to a four-day week. My answer is why not? Imagine getting your work done productively, effectively and within four days. Who would say no to getting the same payment for doing the job, and having a bank holiday every week, while increasing company productivity, profitability, staff retention and overall employee satisfaction?

That is what has happened since July 1st, 2019, at the recruitment company I lead. Indeed, four-day week trials all over the world in 2022 similarly found that employees can do the same work in less time.

Sceptics say there’s no way to transition from a five-day working week to a four-day week without sacrificing productivity. They will say the pressure is too intense, or that it is not possible to keep the same output. Concerns about delivering for customers are often raised as an issue.

That hasn’t been our experience. When we went from a 39- to a 36-hour week, spread over four nine-hour days, we initially saw a 27 per cent increase in productivity. That pretty much continues four years on. For the first 2½ years, we had almost full retention. Since then, and particularly since Covid ended, we’ve seen a reduction in retention, particularly among younger employees who want to travel outside Ireland.


The management thought process must be able to recognise output versus time taken. It’s about getting the work completed effectively and efficiently, and eliminating the waste

While a four-day week may not suit every situation, there are many organisations where it does work; where it leads to improved working conditions and a greater sense of wellbeing for teams. It’s also better for their families, better for our communities and certainly better for our climate.

Of course, it’s not a journey without challenges or bumps in the road. Organisations need to be clear on why they are considering taking this step. The key factors in making it work for us were communication, clarity of expectations, commitment to change and a lot of clear planning. Communication should cover internal staff, external stakeholders and, of course, customers. Within the organisation, everyone needs to be on the one page with regard to expectations. Employees will have questions like: will I get paid the same? Can I still work hybrid? Who covers my customers when I am off? Those need to considered and addressed. Knowing and committing to change old five-day-week behaviours to four-day-week behaviours is essential.

The management thought process must be able to recognise output versus time taken. It’s about getting the work completed effectively and efficiently, and eliminating the waste to allow this to happen in less time. In our case, this meant shorter meetings, less cc’ing people needlessly on emails, better preparedness ahead of meetings so that things get done, and more responsibility in terms of committing to deadlines.

Some of the biggest challenges can be ramping up for a new project – with a shorter working week, people can find there is temporarily more pressure and intensity in the work day. But that can be alleviated by better planning.

And the results are worth it. Since implementing our three-day weekend – or four-day work week – we have seen a significant positive culture change in our organisation. The extra day off is called our “genius day”. Many of our team have utilised their genius day to study, and have completed additional professional qualifications, improving their effectiveness at work. Others are just happy to spend more time with family and friends. Personally, I took up sea swimming, co-authored a book on our three-day weekend journey and have had time to train very hard to take on the challenge to climb Kilimanjaro later this month. And, of course, reducing commutes to work by 20 per cent is also a significant contribution towards reducing CO2 emissions.

Margaret Cox is chief executive of ICE Group and author of The 3-Day Weekend

Fiona Higgins, Ibec: ‘Innovative working models are good. One-size-fits-all measures are not’

The four-day week is just one practice within a suite of flexible working options that may provide opportunities for work/life balance for workers and organisations. However, it is a relatively new concept and the emerging results have highlighted that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. A four-day week simply doesn’t suit all industries. Sectors such as retail, hospitality or healthcare would struggle to adopt the model without compromising on customer care or quality, for example.

A recent trial of the four-day week by Krystal Holdings in the UK demonstrates the issues in customer service industries. In their experiment involving 18 staff, who took either Monday or Friday off, the results showed that response times suffered to the detriment of the customer. Other organisations had better outcomes, but it is also the case that all participants were self-selecting into the trial. The majority were from the marketing, advertising and professional services industries where working hours could be better managed.

Studies have shown that compressed working has a more detrimental effect on some than others, particularly those with mental health difficulties

A two-year pilot in the city of Gothenberg in Sweden introduced a six-hour day for some nurses with encouraging results indicating the nurses were “healthier, happier and more energetic”. But to implement the reduced hours for 68 nurses from eight-hour to six-hour days with no loss of earnings, 17 new workers were hired at a cost of €1.26 million. The cost was prohibitive and the pilot had to be abandoned.

As evidenced by the experience in Sweden, it is not possible for all roles to be performed across four days. In many circumstances, the employer must recruit new workers to cover for the fifth day – in the case of nursing, no amount of productivity gains over four days can replace a nurse on day five. Currently, we don’t even have the capacity to recruit for the number of nurses we need, which begs the question of where this additional capacity would come from. This will also apply in many caring, service, professional and manufacturing industries.

The complexities that would arise in the educational sector; across early childcare services; and primary, secondary and third-level providers must also be considered. The introduction of a four-day week in such sectors would require an increase in headcount to cover service provision for the fifth day, with the inevitable disruption for students and service users. And again, the key questions are about where the new resources would be recruited from, and how productivity could be increased in these sectors to mitigate against the significantly increased costs for the taxpayer.

The working day is not all about working hours and productivity. Coaching and mentoring of colleagues is just as important and is critical to building organisation culture and skill. These “non-productive” tasks and interactions could be at risk if the working week was solely reduced to time and outputs. In the New Zealand four-day working week pilot, employees reduced their breaks and time socialising to get their measurable or “real work” completed. Participants found that there was less “banter” and creativity and innovation were stifled.

Importantly, studies have shown that compressed working has a more detrimental effect on some than others, particularly those with mental health difficulties. Working longer hours, with less opportunity for social interaction, has negative effects on the physical and mental health of employees, including fatigue, stress, burnout and depression. Shortening the work week may even lower productivity for employees who have to fit the same amount of work into fewer days.

The four-day working week undoubtably has advantages for some organisations. We at Ibec recognise the importance of innovative working models, but all parties must see a benefit from the arrangement. One size does not fit all, and businesses will continue to self-select into the flexible ways of working that suit the particular needs of their employees and business.

Fiona Higgins is head of the knowledge centre in Ibec, part of Ibec’s employer relations division