Four-Day Working Week Without Rose-Tinted Glasses

Edvard Munch: Worker and Child (1907) // Public domain

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said at Davos that Slovakia could become a country that will experiment with a four-day working week. It is a flattering topic and so several media immediately picked up on it. There were articles describing experiments where the four-day working week had been tried successfully and examples of countries where it had even been implemented. However, much of this information has been inaccurate and distorted, which has created confusion and there are now many half-truths circulating in society about the four-day working week. Let us put some order into this.

First to the mythical countries where people work only four days a week. Belgium, for example, is said to be the first country where this policy was introduced. In reality, however, politicians there have merely allowed the possibility of spreading the hours worked between four days instead of five. This is also possible in Slovakia.

The next country mentioned is Lithuania, where they have introduced four days of work for parents with children. However, it is no longer customary to add that this applies only to parents of children up to the age of three and only to public sector employees. In Slovakia, we have 5 extra days of leave for employed parents, regardless of where they work.

Another example of a country with a four-day working week is the United Arab Emirates. However, this only applies to public employees. Taxpayers’ money, or the magical proceeds from the sale of oil, make it easier to fund an extra day off. After all, Slovak public sector employees are already halfway to a four-day working week. They officially work 37.5 hours a week and have one more week of holiday.

Another popular example is France, which has a 35-hour working week. In reality, however, for the vast majority of employees, this number of hours remains on paper, and they work longer hours. Even though the law has given them extra pay for working over 35 hours. If you look at Eurostat statistics, you will see that full-time employees in France work 38.6 hours a week, which is more than in Slovakia (38.4).

Clearly, the most cited examples of countries with a four-day working week include Iceland. Here, an experiment was conducted on 2,500 employees between 2015 and 2019. Following the publication of a study evaluating this experiment, the media began to describe the shortening of the working week in Iceland as a “stunning success”.

The more people wrote about the experiment, the fewer people actually read the published study. If they did, they would find, for example, that in the 80 pages of the study, the four-day working week is mentioned only twice. And for good reason. Because nobody in Iceland has tried to reduce the working week by one day, i.e. 8 hours. Not even by 7, 6 or 5. Around 8% of workplaces reduced the number of hours worked by 4 hours in a week. 45% by 3 hours and the remaining almost half worked only 1-2 hours less. This was simply not an experiment with a four-day workweek.

Similar myths have been spread by the media about the subsequent widespread use of the four-day working week after the experiment. It is said to have worked well for most employers and so they are continuing it. However, the study itself says that the private sector reduced the number of hours worked by an average of 35 minutes per week and the public sector by 65 minutes. This is confirmed by Eurostat data. According to them, the average full-time employee in Iceland works 39.5 hours per week. This is one full hour more than in Slovakia.

Similar and many other shortcomings apply to a large part of the trials and experiments with the four-day working week. The European Commission has recently published research (2023) showing that these studies contain a number of methodological problems that disqualify their conclusions. They found shortcomings at virtually all levels of research. From the demonstration of causality and the reliability of the data collected, to the transparency of the reporting of results and the selection of samples and control groups.

As a rule, these studies are not truly experimental in nature, but simply compare a ‘before and after’ condition. They do not randomly select companies and employees, but those who volunteer. For data, they often rely on the subjective and unreliable feelings and impressions of the participants in the experiment. They do not use basic statistical methods and do not report important statistical tests. Samples of firms are not representative. The Hawthorne effect can play a large role in these experiments. This highlights that workers change their behaviour (work rate, productivity) because they are aware that they are part of an experiment.

These shortcomings lead to the fact that we cannot be sure that the positive results reported by the studies are real (internal validity). Equally, we cannot be sure that, even if they are indeed positive, whether they also apply to the rest of the economy and to other countries (external validity).

Simply, studies with a four-day workweek are often just promotional materials with a clearly stated goal and agenda, rather than actual academic research that tells us something about how the four-day workweek works. It is highly irresponsible and, above all, dangerous to set the number of hours worked for all employees in the economy on this basis. The four-day working week may become an interesting employee benefit, a voluntary agreement between employee and employer, but certainly not a public policy and part of the Labour Code.

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Robert Chovanculiak