Employsure: Should Australia adopt a four-day work week?

WITH many business owners opting to have their employees return to the office full-time following months of working from home, the risk of employee burnout has never been greater.

This sentiment isn’t lost on Australian employees, as new data from Employsure’s advice line for small business owners shows a 40 percent increase in employee management calls since the start of the year. While some employers  are choosing a hybrid work model, there is talk about the possibility of a four-day work as an alternative to combat burnout.

A number of countries have recently trialled a four-day work week this year, including Spain and Iceland.

Similar trials have taken place within private companies across the world over the past few years, most notably at Unilever and Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand. Perpetual Guardian made the four-day work week a permanent option for all full-time workers, after it reportedly recorded a 20 percent increase in staff productivity.

As measures such as working from home, or limited office contact days, have become more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are showing they are able to be productive when given the right tools and environments to work in.

“In Australia, the pandemic has shaken up our perception of a typical work week. With more people working, or preferring to work from home post-lockdown, the argument for a four-day work week has never been stronger,” Employsure business partner Emma Dawson said.

“According to academics who observed the four-day work week trial at Perpetual Guardian, staff had a higher level of job satisfaction, which resulted in lower stress levels, greater productivity, and an improved sense of work-life balance.

“A way of recording this with already existing measures in Australia is to look at the several weeks in a year that have a public holiday in them. Anyone who has ever been part of a team who know they have an extra day off in the week will agree the mood is more positive. In an office environment, employees buckle down, cram their work for the week into four days, and then relax knowing they won’t have to do look at a computer screen again for several days.

“If this applied to workers all year, they would essentially get 50 extra days in the year to better handle their work-life balance. Parents would be able to spend more time with their children, work on projects around the house, travel to more places on the weekend. By the time the work week comes back around, they would be more rested and rejuvenated to take on the next four days of work.

“A fully paid four-day work week would be one employees would get on board with, assuming they are paid at the same rate as a 40-hour work week. While the fantasy of only working four days a week is enticing, a large number of workers would most likely reject it if it meant a decrease in wages.”

The realities of a four-day work week however would ultimately have its drawbacks. As employers have seen over the past nearly two years with employees working from home instead of heading into their workplace, it has a knock-on effect for surrounding businesses. For every worker that stays home, that’s one less coffee potentially sold at the local café, one less meal, one less beer.

There would also be many barriers if a four-day work week were to be introduced into Australia; the most obvious being financial. If employees were paid a full week for four days of work, the question of who pays for that fifth day remains.

If a trial was to be implemented in Australia, it would realistically be similar to those held in New Zealand where the company holding the trial foots the bill. If employers were to trial a four-day work week in their own business, they would need to budget for this.

Employers would also have to give workers the option to opt into a trial first.

At Perpetual Guardian, employees were given the option on whether or not to take part. Those who chose not to were still offered flexible working options such as starting or finishing early.

“Employee satisfaction and boosted productivity sounds appealing, but can the benefits outweigh the cost? Employers must be pragmatic and analyse whether four days of work will still generate them five days’ worth of profit,” Ms Dawson said.

“While a post-Covid world is an ideal time to shake up the typical work week formula, ultimately it comes down to cost. If a four-day work week is something that could work in Australia, it can realistically only be achieved once businesses and the Federal Government have fully recovered from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.”


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