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UC experts weigh in on contentious four-day work week proposal

Kelly White and Emma Larouche

6 May 2022: The Standing Committee on Economy and Gender and Economic Equality (the Committee) recently informed the ACT Legislative Assembly that it would look into the potential benefits of a four-day work week for the ACT public service – three University of Canberra academics weigh in on the implications.

With potential benefits for staff satisfaction, productivity and work-life balance, the move would cement the ACT’s place as one of the most progressive cities in the world, but the proposal isn’t without its detractors.

Some critics claim the idea is under analysed, unneeded, and favours an already privileged workforce.

While there are still many unanswered questions on just how this would work in practice, it begs the question: does the amount of time we spend at work matter?

A win for workforce wellbeing?

Work-life balance is one of the key factors that influences job satisfaction and, as such, the four-day workweek has been touted by many as the solution to providing this desired equilibrium.

An additional weekly day off frees up time for important wellbeing activities such as exercise, rest and social connection. Dr Vivienne Lewis, Clinical Psychologist at the University of Canberra, argues that while employers may have concerns about loss of productivity, there is evidence to support the opposite effect.

“Research shows that a four-day week, with a five-day pay rate, improves work life balance and psychological wellbeing,” Dr Lewis said.

“Often workplaces are concerned about those workers who might ‘slack off’ or be less productive but most research shows that these workers are in the minority. In fact, when workers feel less stressed and more balanced, they are often more productive.”

Will teachers lose out?

A four-day work week may be easier to implement in some workplaces than others. When it comes to the delivery of crucial frontline services like teaching or nursing, this model of working might be entirely inoperable.

Just how this proposal would look for the teaching profession is yet to be addressed. Is it possible for a five-day learning program to be delivered in four?

As Dr Thomas Nielsen, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University, explains, children require a benchmark level of quality teaching hours every week.

“It’s a complicated case, because there are so many variables, but research from America suggests that in a four-day week, you can lose up to two weeks of instruction time in the course of a year. When instructional time is decreased, it is bound to have an effect on student outcomes,” Dr Nielsen said.

“From a wellbeing perspective, it’s especially important that children have a balanced day. There’s no doubt that it has benefits for adults to have the option of working in various ways, but for kids, who regularly need quality sleep, instructional time, interactional time, and socialisation with peers, this may be more difficult to achieve in a four-day school week, with longer days being especially difficult for younger students.”

Higher costs for businesses?

Switching to a shorter work week could be a blow to businesses, with a sudden spike in wages.

“If all you did was work the same number of hours each day and only work four days instead of five days, but get paid the same money, doing that instantly would be a huge increase in wages, hence a huge increase in costs for business. That would be very disruptive,” said Dr John Hawkins, an economist and Senior Lecturer at University of Canberra’s School of Politics, Economics and Society.

Introducing the concept gradually might ease the economic pain.

“One suggestion is switching to a nine-day fortnight initially and then a four-day week later, so you’d just phase it in and possibly associate it with lower increases in wages than there otherwise would be so as not to have a sudden 20 per cent increase in the cost of labour,” Dr Hawkins said.

There are businesses already coming to terms with the proposed change.

“This issue’s come more to the fore since COVID disrupted the norms of working life, with some companies questioning the assumption that work has to be five days a week.”