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The joy of four

By Mindo - 03rd Feb 2020

With reported gains in productivity and happier staff, could the health service ever introduce a four-day working week?

orking a four-day week while being paid for five days seems nothing less than a utopian dream for doctors. In fact, the reverse usually applies: Doctors who work a four-day week more often than not end up doing paperwork and following-up phone calls on their allegedly ‘free’ day. And to add insult to injury, they are only paid 4/5 of a full-time salary while going the extra mile.

So the current push towards a four-day working week, which we are seeing internationally, seems unlikely to breach medicine’s traditional citadel. But it’s definitely coming for some workers, with solid research suggesting it does not damage productivity.

In fact, reducing the length of the working week appears to boost productivity. Last August, Microsoft in Japan experimented with a four-day working week, and productivity went up an incredible 40 per cent. So what are the rest of the workforce doing with their additional day at the coal mine? Apparently they are sending pointless emails, sitting in lengthy meetings and goofing around the Internet, engaged in non-work related cyber-surfing.

Research suggests around a half of workers want a four-day week. But even successful trial runs do not guarantee a permanent change in working hours. When the city of Gothenburg introduced a six-hour day for some nurses, the nurses became healthier and happier. However, the employer said it increased its cost base and so the change was reversed.

Another quasi-medical outfit, The Wellcome Trust in London, backed out of its plan for a four-day week, saying it would be “too operationally complex”. I have to say that excuses such as this make me suspect other factors are at play. Take Kellogg’s in the US as an example: It successfully operated a six-hour working-day policy for many years; it was only dropped because management wanted the firm to stop being different and to mirror the ‘normal’ work practices of other employers.

The concept of a four-day working week was first piloted by New Zealand businessman Andrew Barnes, who introduced a four-day week at his financial services company, Perpetual Guardian. Researchers at the Auckland University of Technology were able to show that productivity increased by 20 per cent among the 240-person workforce, while staff reported a better work-life balance, and less stress. By concentrating on productivity, and cutting down on distractions, employees can get the same amount of work done in four days — while being paid for five.

“It’s not about companies cutting hours, cutting workers, making people work longer hours… It’s about changing how you work when in the office,” said Mr Barnes.

The businessman attended the start of the Four-Day Week Ireland campaign in Dublin last autumn, which is being led by the trade union Fórsa. Union official Joe O’Connor said the four-day working week was “about changing the narrative that working long hours is some sort of badge of honour. What we’re saying is, we should be judging people on the productivity and the output, and not on time.”

Galway-based recruitment and training firm ICE began a trial of the four-day week early last year. Staff have the option to take off either Monday or Friday, and work an hour longer during the remaining four weekdays. Not surprisingly, having a three-day weekend every single week has gone down a treat with employees. Initial indications are the company has at least maintained productivity, with a decision to be made shortly on whether to make the change permanent or not.

What do people do with their extra day off? According to Auckland University of Technology researchers, some of the ‘perpetual workers’ used the time for different activities, including “spending time with parents”, while others were happy to simply play more golf.

With our beleaguered health system actively driving people to work abroad, this kind of ‘blue-water thinking’ seems like it belongs in a parallel universe. But if we had a ‘normal’ health service, would you be interested? Or would you feel more comfortable with the old trope that ‘happiness is being too busy to be miserable?’

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