In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes wrote his famous essay entitled Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, in which he made a bold prediction: by the twenty-first century, technology would have advanced far enough that the average work week would be only fifteen hours. While technology has advanced hugely since his prediction, Keynes’ economic vision of the future is a far cry from reality. In 2021, Denmark has the shortest average work week for full-time workers at 37.2 hours per week. Ireland is the 11th highest ranking country in the world at 39.7 hours per week.
Decreases in the average work weeks plateaued in the 1980s as rapid economic growth led to increased consumption rather than increased leisure time — workers prioritised more money in their hands than free time on their hands. Second-wave feminism and women’s fight for economic rights also meant that the workforce was growing rather than shrinking, and reducing work hours was no longer a priority for policymakers and business owners.
While today’s world is profoundly different from that of Keynes, there are still many who see the same possibilities he did. The Four Day Week Ireland campaign was launched in September 2019. Inspired by similar initiatives in New Zealand, Germany and Sweden, the group advocates for the gradual transition of the average work week from five to four days “with no loss of pay”. The group of Irish trade unions and private businesses believes that such a transition in Ireland is better for productivity, profitability and worker satisfaction.
Speaking to Trinity News, chairperson of Four Day Week Ireland Joe O’Connor explained: “Our focus is on the idea of the ‘one hundred-eighty-one hundred’ model. It basically means one hundred percent of the pay for eighty percent of the time, resulting in one hundred percent of the productivity.”
“From a worker perspective, this is something that can really assist in providing a greater work-life balance.”
“We believe that the four day work week is something that could be better for business. There’s a lot of academic research and also real world case studies that have taken place in the last number of years that have introduced the four day work week and have seen their productivity increase through a more focused approach and greater prioritisation… [employers] have seen major improvements in terms of reduced unplanned sick leave [and] greater employee retention.”
Limerick-based company ICE Group implemented a four day work week in July 2019, one of the first in Ireland to do so, and was a key supporter in the formation of Four Day Week Ireland. It is companies like this, O’Connor believes, that are creating a better future for its employees and the wider world.
“From a worker perspective, this is something that can really assist in providing a greater work-life balance,” O’Connor said. “Reducing work-related stress and burnout, and also enabling workers to spend more time on hobbies, in the community and with their families.”
In particular, O’Connor emphasised the “revolutionary” impact the four day work week has on gender equality in the workplace. Currently, women take on the greatest proportion of domestic responsibility, taking time off and jeopardising their ability to progress in their careers as much as their male counterparts. O’Connor argues that “if we move towards a four day working week, a standard across the economy, it would effectively redress the balance whereby you would have an even playing field between women and men. It could well lead to a rebalancing of domestic and caring responsibilities in the home, which in turn enables women to overcome some of the barriers to achieving senior leadership positions in work.”
O’Connor also believes that a shorter work week is a greener work week: “There’s a number of studies that show a very close correlation between working time and carbon emission. One study from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden suggests that a 16% [reduction] in carbon emissions could be brought about by a four day work week, which would be achieved through reduced commuting [and] reduced energy use in office buildings.”
While the Four Day Week Ireland campaign boasts an ambitious plan with far-reaching impacts on society, there are still those who question the feasibility of such a plan. Maeve McElwee of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation criticised the idea of a universal four day work week as “prohibitively expensive” and “too unrealistic”.
Concerns have also been raised on how the shorter work week might be adapted in different sectors of the economy. Speaking to Trinity News on the matter, Trinity professor of economics Michael Wycherly pointed out that less flexible sectors that require staff with specific skills, such as education, childcare and healthcare, might struggle to cope with the implementation.
“If workers go to a four day week then firms may have to hire additional workers and then train them in the specific skills, raising their costs,” Wycherly explained. “Even if wages went down to keep the total wage bill about the same, this would still impose higher costs on firms [due to] the need to train and hire more staff than before.”
O’Connor admits that these challenges faced by these sectors will require more overhaul and investments into staff than others, and such overhaul cannot be achieved in “phase one” of the campaign’s plans. However, O’Connor holds that a shorter, more flexible work week is possible across Ireland “within the next five to ten years”.
“The Four Day Week campaign is very much about changing our mindsets, changing how we think about work, away from this idea of measuring people’s worth based on [the time] they spend on the clock”
“I think the reason that a lot of businesses who have done [the four day week] have found, almost counter intuitively, that when they reduce work time they deliver better outcomes in terms of profitability and productivity, it’s because they use the four day week as a lever to have a conversation in their business about ‘how can we better prioritise, how can we work smarter, how can we focus on the things that are really important?’”
In June, Four Day Week Ireland announced plans for a six-month pilot programme to test the effectiveness of a shorter work week, beginning in January 2022. The Government also announced plans to fund research into the national impacts of a four day work week.
Tanáiste Leo Varadkar acknowledged that COVID-19 and remote working has forced new discussions around work practices. According to O’Connor, the “remote revolution” has introduced both employees and employers to a new approach towards productivity and flexibility.
While O’Connor believes that the incoming programme and government research will be very critical of the campaign, he asserts that “the more we can demonstrate through pilot programmes and through research that this is something that can work, that’s when we’ll get the broader support, both within the business community and within politics, that [the four day week] is something we need a much broader shift towards”.
“The Four Day Week campaign is very much about changing our mindsets, changing how we think about work, away from this idea of measuring people’s worth based on the time they spend at the office, the time they spend at the desk, or the time they spend on the clock.”