Fewer hours, same pay: Is Australia ready for a four-day working week?


  • Workers at Unilever ANZ are trialling a four-day working week, following a successful 18-month trial in New Zealand
  • Staff will retain full salaries while working reduced hours, and the business still expects its targets to be met
  • Advocates for the four-day week say spending fewer hours at work can improve productivity and wellbeing
During the COVID-19 pandemic, both employees and businesses across Australia were forced to change the way they worked.
While many aspects of life have now returned to normal, hybrid working arrangements have become commonplace in many industries, with employees often working from home.
Some businesses are taking it a step further by introducing flexibility in the number of hours full-time employees can work.
On Wednesday, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever ANZ announced its Australian employees would be trialling a four-day working week, following a successful 18-month trial in New Zealand.

So how does a four-day week actually function, should it be more common, and is Australia ready for it?

How does a four-day week work?

The concept of a four-day week involves reducing the amount of time spent working without decreasing output or pay.

Through the Unilever Australia trial, staff will be able to choose the day they don’t work, or spread the reduced hours across the week.

“We are only asking our team members to find 20 per cent of the hidden capacity that sits in any business and slows us down,” Unilever ANZ chief executive Nicky Sparshott told AAP.
“It is about removing no value-added costs, projects or processes and think differently about what meetings we participate in or how we can better communicate and collaborate.”

Workers will also be able to split their four days between home and the office.

What are the benefits?

According to research from the not-for-profit 4 Day Week Global, reducing employees’ hours at work can improve productivity and be beneficial for both individuals and businesses.

Unilever’s 18-month pilot in New Zealand showed strong results against business targets, including revenue growth, with stakeholders and partners agreeing the team continued to complete work on time and to high standards.

Absenteeism and stress dropped by 34 and 33 per cent respectively, while feelings of “strength and vigour” at work increased by 15 per cent.
Conflict between work and life fell by 67 per cent.
Dr Kristy Goodwin, digital performance researcher, speaker, and author, says spending fewer hours working also has neurobiological benefits.
“We want to make sure we’re optimising the time we’re available, minimising as many digital disruptions as possible, being really diligent with how we spend our time (at work) and almost build a fortress around our focus,” she says.
“It’s about optimising our performance by working in congruence with how our brains and bodies are designed … it sounds outdated to say, but it really is about working smarter not harder.”

Research has also found positive benefits of having fewer meetings.

A found productivity was 71 per cent higher after reducing meetings by 40 per cent, while removing 60 per cent of meetings increased cooperation and improved employees’ stress levels and wellbeing.
also found spending more time in meetings is linked with higher risks of burnout and fatigue, while flexibility was linked with positive outcomes related to innovation, well-being and perceptions of workplace culture.
Dr Goodwin says a shorter working week should not mean four longer work days, and emphasises the concept should result in full-time workers doing fewer total hours.
“You’re not going to get the benefits if people are working 11-hour days; that will have the opposite effect and your productivity will be declining,” she said.

“From a neurobiological perspective, our prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain that does the heavy lifting – gets exhausted.”

What have other countries done?

Australia and New Zealand are not the first countries to consider implementing a four-day working week.
Earlier this year, Belgium introduced new laws which enable full-time employees to request working 10-hour days across four days in order to have an additional day off in the week.
Businesses in countries around the world including Iceland, the United States, Canada and Japan have also conducted trials.

In October, Labour MP Peter Dowd tabled a bill to the UK Parliament to reduce the maximum weekly work hours from 48 to 32.


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