Work smarter not harder – I am sure you have heard this phrase before. And if you work in academia, like me, I am sure you probably shrugged it off, most likely thinking I need to work smarter AND harder. But do we really? And where does this working ethos come from? In this blog, I want to discuss the 4-day working week movement that has really taken traction following the pandemic, the remarkable benefits working a shorter week can bring for employees and employers and discuss if this could really work in academia and if so, what it would look like.
Over the past two weeks, news headlines have been dominated by the results of a seminal study of the benefits of working a four-day week – if you haven’t seen them, welcome back, you have some catching up to do. In the UK, the idea of a 4-day working week was first considered in the Labour party manifesto for the 2019 elections, pledging a whole country shift to a four-day working by 20291. At the time, this seemed like science fiction but then COVID-19 hit. Millions of employees had to adapt, overnight, to ‘working from home’ as well as juggling home life, the two now appearing one and the same. Whilst, just as many individuals, working in the public sector, had to carry on working amidst new challenges. This forced change has given us a renewed ability to re-think our work-life-balance and the true meaning of flexible working. And as we navigate our way out of the pandemic this re-think hasn’t gone away.
Fuelled by the success of previous 4-day working week pilots in the USA, Ireland, Japan, Iceland and New Zealand – which have undauntedly helped change the perception of a shorter working week from abstract and idealistic to plausible and realisable – the UK pilot kicked off in June 2022. The 6-month trial was coordinated by a joint effort of 4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit organisation, a thinktank, Autonomy and a team of academics from Boston College and the University of Cambridge. Within it, 61 organisations committed to a reduction of 20% in working hours for all staff, with no fall in wages – yes you read that right.
And the results are in, what do they tell us? It will come as no surprise that employees had an overwhelmingly positive response to the change, but possibly more surprisingly employers also reported benefits. Key findings show significant reduction in stress and illness. 71% of employees self-reported lower levels of ‘burnout’ and 39% reported lower stress levels when compared to the start of the trial. The trial also had positive effects on family and social commitments, for 54% of employees it was easier to balance work with household jobs and 60% found an increased ability to combine work with care responsibilities. For employers, results show worker retention – translating to 57% less resignations – and reduced absenteeism, with a 65% reduction in sick days. Company revenue stayed the same during the trial period – it actually increased by 1.4% on average – but more surprisingly when compared to a similar period from previous years, revenue increased by 35% on average2. As a direct result of these benefits, 92% of the companies taking part in the trial will continue on implementing the four-day working week.
So, to quickly summarise, a shorter working week leads to improved emotional, mental and physical well-being and a better work-life balance for employees. And for employers increased worker retention ultimately increases company revenue. It really does sound like a no brainer, so why aren’t we all making this change? Like from tomorrow?
Well, you got to work at it. Making this change overnight actually could do more harm than good. The UK trial involved two months of backstage preparations. These included workshops, coaching, mentoring and peer support for all participants. Drawing from the collective experience of companies that already made the switch to a shorter working week and consultancy and research organisations2.
And one size does not fit all. Each company designed their own 4-day-week model, rejecting the idea of ‘one size fits all’. Each model – the trial results highlight five structures – was tied to the company own industry, work ethos and organisational and departmental structure to give it a real chance to succeed2. It also goes without saying that the model or structure needs to be flexible enough to allow for changes or tweaks if the current schema isn’t working.
As I was reading the results of the UK pilot, it really stood out that none of the 61 companies involved were higher education institutions. So now crunch time, do I really see this 4-day working week coming to academia any time soon or if at all?
There is no hiding it, academia is ripe with the ethos of overworking. Many early career researchers are choosing to leave higher education for industry and it’s not hard to see why. Academics are constantly treading the line of burnout with many – too many – falling victim to it. Changing the way in which we think about work, not championing a 7-day working week, could really go a long way in promoting mental health and really encouraging a healthy work-life balance, which undoubtably will lead to happier staff, reduce burnout and promote staff retention, especially of early career researchers.
Bureaucracy and administrative tasks are relentless, again leading to poor work-life balance. There is much around reducing this in the 4-day working week that I think could really benefit academia. For example, in the UK trial, long meetings with many people were cut short if not completely removed to be replaced by shorter meetings with clearer agendas. Email exchanges were reformatted to avoid long chains and inbox churn. Some companies also introduced interruption-free periods, giving their employees protected time to focus3. Reducing administrative burden could inevitably free up time for more research, grant writing and teaching.
Finally, if there is an appetite for this change, it needs to come from university heads as much as academic staff. It is clear from the results of the trials that in order to make the switch both employer and employee need to be on the same page. And work together to design the 4-day-week model and implement the changes needed for it to work. And with this said, I am not suggesting it will be an easy feat. Departments operate in different ways and may thus require slightly different or adjusted models. Universities are a place of innovation, perhaps it is time to look inward and start changing antiquated practices.
Ultimately, adopting a 4 day-working week is really about a change in the way we think about working. It’s not fitting a ‘5-day work schedule’ in 4 days; it’s about optimising our time and working smarter. I don’t think moving academia to a 4-day working week is going to magically solve all of its institutional problems, but it could definitely help to start tackling some, with overworking and burnout at the forefront.
Dr Gaia Brezzo is a Research Fellow based within the UK Dementia Research Institute at The University of Edinburgh. Gaia’s research focuses on understanding how immune alterations triggered by stroke shape chronic maladaptive neuroimmune responses that lead to post-stroke cognitive decline and vascular dementia. Raised in Italy, Gaia came to the UK to complete her undergraduate degree, and thankfully, stuck around. Gaia writes about her work and career challenges, when not biking her way up and down hills in Edinburgh.
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