Should Australia adopt a four-day work week?

Published April 26, 2021 (last updated January 25, 2022) -

Spain could become one of the first countries in the world to trial a four-day work week, a move which will see the hours of a typical full-time employee reduced from 40 to 32, but at the same rate of pay.

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 per cent 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, Employsure, Australia’s largest workplace relations advisor, believes 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, and preferring to work, from home, it begs the question, should a four-day work week be adopted here,” said Employsure Business Partner Emma Dawson.

“The aspect of a four-day work week most people consider is how it could benefit them. According to academics who observed the 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 will ultimately have its drawbacks. As employers have seen in the past year 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. With rent for businesses so high but revenue falling, it’s no wonder employers are buckling under the financial pressure.

Employers also looking to monitor whether they have staff at home or in the office, if they choose to have people working four-days on different days, could use people management software to track them. BrightHR software allows employers to set up a geofence around their employees, so they can tell who is at work and who is not.

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.

In Spain, the party proposing the four-day trial wants it to occur over three years, at a cost to the government equivalent to about AU$77M. Under the proposal, companies that choose to participate would be covered 100% by the government in the first year, 50% in the second and 33% in the third. It’s estimated the figures could see a maximum of 200 businesses participate.

In 2019, Australia saw its first budget surplus in more than a decade. Since then, the Morrison government has allocated money to support victims of the country’s worst bushfire season, money to support employers and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic with schemes such as JobKeeper, and more recently money for those affected by flooding on the east coast of New South Wales. As a result, the Australian government is not in a financial position to offer employers a subsidy to allow their workers to have an extra day of the week off, no matter how attractive the idea sounds.

“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 take numerous factors into consideration,” continued Ms Dawson.

“Employers would firstly have to give workers the option to opt into the trial. 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.

“While a post-Covid world is an ideal time to shake up the typical work week formula, ultimately it comes down to the 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,” she concluded.

Further enquiries:

Matthew Bridges

[email protected]

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