Recent research from the TUC (Trades Union Congress) has shown that UK employees work the longest hours in the EU, and employers have been urged to heed the growing enthusiasm for the shorter working week if they want to retain talent. But is this really the answer?

The Future of Work 2018 report found that 3.3 million employees worked over 48 hours a week, almost half a million worked more than 60, and 1.4 million people still worked on all seven days of the week. Full-time employees in the UK worked 42 hours a week on average, exceeding the EU average by almost two hours, which translated into an extra two and a half weeks a year.

Research conducted by YouGov around workplace stress, business resources, coping mechanisms and resilience has shown that UK employees are accustomed to working under long-term pressure and as a result feel perpetually under stress.

When employees were asked what could be done to tackle the issue, the most popular option was the introduction of a four-day working week.

Nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of UK workers have claimed they could do their job to the same standard over four days as they do in five, according to a new report.

The Meaning of Work report, which polled more than 2,000 full-time employees, also found the proportion of those who believed their work would not be compromised by losing a day was highest among millennials – those aged between 23 and 38 – at almost four in five (79 per cent).

Job website Indeed – the company behind the research – revealed searches for terms including ‘working from home’, ‘flexible work’ and ‘remote work’ were up 116 per cent as a share of all searches on its UK site since 2015.

The report also found that between 2014 and 2019, Indeed saw a 136 per cent increase in the phrase ‘flexible working hours’ in job postings in the UK, suggesting employers are listening to growing demand.

Indeed’s UK economist Dr Pawel Adrjan said the survey sent “a strong signal” to employers that they would have to take “an imaginative and flexible approach” to how they organised their people in order to succeed in an increasingly competitive labour market. 

The view from the CIPD is that the current strain felt by skills shortages was often exacerbated by an underutilisation of current talent, and that flexible working gives employees the freedom to manage their time and workload efficiently, as well as enhancing wellbeing and building loyalty.

Not only are UK workers less productive but the long-hours culture in the UK is damaging to employee wellbeing and is not conducive to a healthy work-life balance. Spending unproductive and long hours at work is in no one’s interest.

The estate planning agency Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand has permanently implemented a four- day week with its 240 staff and have found that this resulted in a 20% rise in productivity, increase profits, improved staff wellbeing and reduced stress levels.

But is this really the solution?

While the idea of a four-day week might sound appealing, in practice, it could lead to more stress and a worse work-life balance as people try to cram five days’ worth of work into four, which could lead to burn out and would be unsustainable in the long run.

Considering whether a four-day week will remove stress in the workplace is asking the wrong question. Rather than looking for a way to create an entirely pressure-free work environment, we should acknowledge that pressure can never be eliminated altogether, and that in fact, we shouldn’t want it to be. In manageable doses, pressure can actually motivate and drive us. 

The ultimate key to managing stress and fatigue within your business is creating a culture of support and flexibility. Focusing on helping employees to help themselves, while creating an environment which allows them to do so.

Managers should also be made aware of the important role they can play in not just noticing issues but helping their team to manage pressure. But this will only have a positive impact if leadership teams are aware of the culture they are creating at an organisational level and setting a good example. 

Ultimately, employees need real tools and strategies to help manage stress and thrive under pressure, and support from their managers – not just an employee perk that looks good on the company website. 


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