No more Mondayitis? Why the four-day week has us all talking

Some of Woolworths' thousands of staff are poised to become the latest in Australia to embrace a shorter working week.

Some of Woolworths' thousands of staff are poised to become the latest in Australia to embrace a shorter working week.

How about a long weekend every weekend? Do you like the sound of no more Mondayitis, an extra day each week for life admin, more time for side hustles and all-round good living?

Thousands of Australian workers may be a step closer to that reality if a proposal by Woolworths is passed in its new enterprise agreement.

Earlier this month, the ABC reported the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association of NSW, a key union representing some of Woolworths’ more than 100,000 staff, was backing a push by the retail giant to introduce a four-day work week.

The ABC also reported that another union involved in the negotiations, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, was less pleased by the proposal.

State secretary Josh Cullinan labelled it “entirely smoke and mirrors” and said all it did was “provide that Woolies might agree in the future to have a four-day week”.

As with all things on our vexed employment relations landscape, the devil will be in the detail.

What is a four-day week and how does it work?

The four-day week has had a surge in discourse post-Covid, helped along by another major employer, Bunnings, last year backing the idea for some of its workers.

Health insurers Bupa and Medibank are trialling variations of the concept, while Melbourne-based accounting and consulting firm Grant Thornton told the Australian Financial Review this week it will “permanently move to a nine-day fortnight after a 12-month trial coincided with record-high productivity, employee retention and profits”.

The idea certainly has many people talking. And why wouldn’t it? There aren’t too many people who couldn’t find some benefit in that extra day for themselves each week.

There are multiple ways to achieve it.

One is by simply cutting a day out of the week and reducing your work commitment to just four of the five days you once worked.

In theory, and perhaps on paper, one upside to this is that the reduced hours worked by employees potentially more creates opportunities and more jobs for new staff.

However, this often comes with a commensurate reduction in pay, and with the cost-of-living crisis still raging, it may not be welcomed by many.

Another method is by varying the number of hours worked each day to spread your previous five-day commitment across four days.

For example, instead of working five eight-hour days, you might instead do a condensed four 10-hour days.

Are there other benefits?

Last year research firm Autonomy released a report titled The Results are in: The UK’s Four-Day Week Pilot, detailing the results of research in what it described as “the world’s largest four-day working week trial to date, comprising 61 companies and around 2900 workers”.

The report said the British “trial was a resounding success”, with 56 of the 61 companies involved maintaining their four-day weeks after it ended.

As for the impact on business revenues, the report said “they stayed broadly the same over the trial period, rising by 1.4 per cent on average, weighted by company size, across respondent organisations”.

In the trial that formed the basis for the report, the model of four-day work used differed from either of those above.

Participants took varied approaches, but on the basis that whatever model was used, employees still received 100 per cent of their pre-trial pay.

That reflects a method referred to by advocate group 4 Day Week Global as the 100:80:100 model, in which employees generate 100 per cent of their output in 80 per cent of their time, for 100 per cent of their pay.

The trial spanned companies in a broad range of industries from marketing and finance to construction and manufacturing.

The positive benefits of the shorter week were many, with data showing “that 39 per cent of employees were less stressed, and 71 per cent had reduced levels of burnout”.

Further, 60 per cent of workers reported “an increased ability to combine paid work with care responsibilities”, along with “62 per cent [who] reported it easier to combine work with social life”.

What is the future of the four-day week in Australia?

In March 2023, the final report of the Senate select committee on work and care  recommended “the Australian government undertake a four-day week trial based on the 100:80:100 model”.

Citing “wide-ranging benefits of work-time reduction policies” – and relying on data from the British trial as well as those in other European countries – it recommended the trial “be implemented in diverse sectors and geographical locations.”

While the movement is yet to fully take hold in Australia, it is clear that there is a groundswell of support here and overseas for workplaces to consider alternatives to the way work gets done.

Maybe one day Thursday will be the new Friday, which would make Wednesday the new Thursday – and good times for all.

Scott Riches is an employment lawyer and former union official. He is also director principal of Capacita

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