Even before the pandemic the third sector was looking at less stressful, more efficient ways of working. And the four-day week might be the answer, writes Robert Armour.
It’s Friday morning and Beverley Cairns is heading with her husband William and two children to a lodge she shares in Portpatrick. This has become a weekly summer event for the Cairns family, after the charity she works for, Dumfries Children and Family Centre, decided its nine staff would go from a five day working week to four at the beginning of this year.
For Beverley, a social worker, this means she does not work alternate Fridays and Mondays with every weekend being a long one. With 20 years full-time working behind her, she says the four day week has changed her life and has facilitated a lifestyle that has brought her closer to those she cherishes most. “Spending more complete days with the children as they grow up is what I’ve always wanted,” says Beverley. “It has brought us closer, made us more relaxed as a family and it makes work more productive.”
Husband William, an IT consultant, has also condensed his week into four days which gives the family a real work/life balance and has opened up new possibilities in their family life, a lifestyle hitherto unimaginable as they pursued the regular 9-5, five day week grind.
Pete Anderson, director of the family centre and Beverley’s boss, says the move to four days has left his nine staff better at what they do. However a big part of embracing the policy was centred on staff’s life outside work and not purely driven by the needs of the business.
“It might seem counter-intuitive for a business to primarily focus on employees’ out-of-work lives but it’s proven for us to be the best way of going forward,” he says. “If staff aren’t happy because they can’t spend time with family or even friends, can’t see much daylight during winter because they’re commuting and working then that reflects on their mood in work.
“It’s just one day. But it makes a big difference to all our lives here at the family centre.”
Staff operate a rota system between themselves to make sure the centre is adequately staffed five days a week, a system that works well because, as Anderson puts it, “nothing is imposed or forced. We work this ourselves and that buy-in makes staff feel they are making their own choices.”
As more charities take Anderson’s lead, there is gathering momentum for the four day week to become the norm and not the exception. The SNP pledged what is in effect a £10 million feasibility study of the four-day working week allowing organisations to pilot and explore the benefits of a shorter working week in a manifesto commitment.
Other organisations who have adopted the policy have also turned campaigners. At the Scottish Parliament election in May, Advice Direct Scotland urged parties to include a four-day work week pledge in their manifestos, saying the policy “has been shown to work”.
In 2018, it set the standard by putting the policy in place for its 90 members of staff in Glasgow while receiving the same wages as before.
The charity said absenteeism had fallen by more than 75% since it brought in a reduced working week, and cited a report which last year found 70% of people backed a four-day week, with only 8% opposed or strongly opposed to the idea.
“The four-day week has been shown to work in the places where it has been tried and the idea has strong public support in Scotland. It is well established in productive and efficient economies like Norway and Denmark and looks set to be introduced in New Zealand too,” says Andrew Bartlett, chief executive of Advice Direct Scotland.
“This isn’t about businesses just giving staff a free day off each week. We know from our own experience that staff are far happier and more productive as a result of the four-day week, and that absenteeism has fallen significantly.”
Post-Covid, organisations are finding it easier to implement flexible working and have already seen the benefits of more relaxed staff as they work from home. YWCA Scotland said it will be reducing its working hours for its employees and implementing a four day week to "build back better after this current health and economic crisis", helping to improve wellbeing while reducing stress and anxiety.
Bosses said there will be no impact on salaries or current agreed annual leave allowance, with a flexible working policy to fit different lifestyles and needs.
The charity’s Status of Young Women in Scotland 2020-2021 report found that there is a need for flexible working patterns to ensure a more accessible labour market for women at all stages of their careers.
"There are many reasons why we landed on this decision, not least our duty of care for every member of our team. The last 18 months have been some of the toughest and some of the most impressive for our wee team of seven,” said a spokesperson.
"We delivered all our existing programmes and created new opportunities for feminists to connect, collaborate and create together while we were apart. We supported more women digitally than we ever had before, transferred our in-person programmes online and set up weekly team meetings to start each week with work chat and general banter.
"We’re practicing the same values and commitments to staff welfare and closing the gender gap in the workplace we hope to see replicated across all industries and sectors in Scotland.
“Modelling the possibilities for feminist ways of working and incorporating care into every aspect of our organisation’s infrastructure only works to strengthen the foundations upon which we build our communities of intersectional feminists."
Joe Ryle, a campaigner with the 4 Day Week Campaign, says the four-day week with no loss of pay is a win-win for both workers and employers. The benefits are many: better mental and physical health; a fairer society with a more equal share of paid and unpaid work; strengthened communities; and lower unemployment.
“Wherever we’re seeing the four-day week implemented, productivity is going up and so is workers’ wellbeing,” he says. “The evidence suggests that a four-day week would help to bring down carbon emissions, improve gender equality and give people more time to engage with politics at a local and national level.
“We invented the weekend a century ago. It’s time for an update.”
However, a four day working week is not without its detractors. There have been suggestions that introducing a four-day week could be costly and that larger organisations, such as care groups, would find it unfeasible to roll-out across their range of services.
Brian Hemphill, an HR consultant who advises third sector organisations on staffing and recruitment, says not all industries and workers would be able to transition into a four-day week. However, the third and public sectors are best placed to do so if the desire is there.
“There is a cost implication and that’s probably why you see the smaller charities make the transition to less hours,” he says. “However, there are instances of over-employment in both these sectors and transitioning really just means becoming more efficient with staff and how they work. Jobs could change to reflect a more flexible working week and new roles created. A four day week is possible if organisations think creatively about how they work.”
David Rutherford (pictured, above), a father of two from Glasgow and an employee of Advice Direct Scotland, says that he saves around £520 a year on commuting: “If you take home working out of the equation completely, so pre-lockdown, I went from five days a week to four days a week in the office which meant one less day of train travel to pay.
"That would cost me a tenner. We are not talking thousands of pounds but that's a tenner a week saved on train fare and petrol down to the train station. I am on the same salary and I have a little bonus from less commuting.”
While at home working is still the norm for many, as workplaces open up and staff return to city and town centres David said that avoiding the temptation of paying for lunch or coffee out for an extra day saved him money.
He explained: “The Merchant City, where my office is, has fancy places for coffee and lunch so it's really easy to spend £10 a day just getting lunch and snacks so it's definitely a way to save with an extra day off work."
David added: "For me it’s not all financial benefit. I have two you kids and having a day during the week that we can set aside as a family day has made some difference. I missed a lot of my youngest son’s first year because five days a week I'd be out of the house at 7.30 and getting home when he is going to bed and often he would spend the weekend at his gran’s.
"I've actually got family time guaranteed every week now and some weekly savings that I have the potential to spend on them."
How the world is adopting four day weeks
Before Covid, Gothenburg’s Toyota factory moved mechanics to a six-hour day – and output rose by 14% and profits by 25%.
Sweden conducted a trial with care home nurses working six hours, five days a week. Nurses logged fewer sick hours, reported better health and it improved quality of care.
Public services unions in Reykjavik negotiated a four-hour reduced working week for 2,200 local authority employees, with less sickness, improved employee satisfaction and no loss in productivity.
A three-year 32-hour working week experiment has been launched in Spain as part of the country’s economic recovery following Covid-19.
Ireland has announced plans for a pilot programme to test out a four-day working week from January 2022. The experiment will last for six months.
And New Zealand’s prime-minister, Jacinda Ardern (pictured), wants employers to consider a four-day working week to boost tourism and the economy.