At the start of 2019, the Wellcome Trust announced that it was considering moving all 800 staff at its head office in London to a four-day week with no change in pay to improve well-being and productivity – and would be the largest company in the world to do so.


The idea followed smaller companies around the world reporting a successful switch. Notably, the New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian trialled the shorter week with its 240 employees in spring 2018 and adopted the policy permanently in September, citing a study of the trial carried out by Auckland University of Technology and the University of Auckland Business School.

The study found that not only was total productivity – in terms of supervisors’ assessments of job performance – maintained despite the shorter hours, but also that the employees were, on average, less stressed and more engaged, and that their work-life balance had improved.

Here in the UK, workers typically fall short in productivity compared to our neighbours. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, the average worker in Germany is just over 25 per cent more productive than the average worker in the UK, in terms of GDP per hour worked. In other words, our German counterparts have achieved more by Thursday than we manage in the whole week (show offs).

Prof Paul Redford, an occupational psychologist at the University of the West of England, says we shouldn’t take these averaged statistics at face value. “These overall national scores end up trying to look at cultural differences, but actually what you want to look at is organisational differences. What are the most successful organisations doing, irrespective of their cultures?

“I don’t think there’s something necessarily inherent in the UK that is endemic in working practices or the UK culture or psyche that means that we’re lazy or less productive. We may be less focused – I don’t know if that’s the case – but I think the way forward is to think about the organisational practices that lead to successful output.”

The Wellcome Trust could be the largest company in the world to move to a four-day week © Getty Images
The Wellcome Trust could be the largest company in the world to move to a four-day week © Getty Images

Pursuit Marketing, based in Glasgow, declared Fridays to be voluntary for all staff in September 2016. Following an initial spike in productivity by 37 per cent, which Operations Director Lorraine Gray attributes to the novelty factor, total productivity settled to almost 30 per cent higher than before the change.

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“I think it works really well here because it’s part of an overall culture of wellbeing,” says Gray. “Everyone is really clear that the focus is on the work-life balance and making sure that everyone has the best balance and can be the best version of themselves.”

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Having less time to complete the same tasks compels workers to work more efficiently. “Just shifting to thinking about ‘How can I do my work in less time?’ focuses people’s attention on what it is important for them to do. They make slightly more strategic decisions over the actions that are going to result in higher levels of productivity,” explains Redford.

“I think that’s why some of these things have been reporting quite a lot of success: it’s shaking people up a little to think ‘What should I be doing today? What should I be focusing on, given that I’ve only got four days to do it?’”

The 9-5, five-day week is a relatively recent invention in the history of human work. It was the result of much campaigning to reduce working hours once the Industrial Revolution had provided technology to vastly improve productivity. The Trades Union Congress believe that we should once more reap the rewards of our technological boom, in particular AI and automation, and adopt the four-day week.

“The Industrial Revolution, with the promotion of factory-based working, shifted the nature of work to this 9-5. For the most part of human history, we haven’t worked to those sorts of patterns,” says Redford. “We’re still, in some ways, in the tail end of a post-manufacturing industry style of working, which I think I probably not very humane, in the grand scheme of things.

“I think we have an overemphasis on productivity. Sometimes the focus on wellbeing is saying that it’s good to have high level of wellbeing because it’s more productive; I think that wellbeing is not a bad aim in and of itself.”

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.