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The Rise of the Four Day Week!

In May 2019 it was announced that Simply Business was proposing to move from a five day working week to a four day working week (with no reduction in basic salary).

Simply Business is not the first to make this move; but will others follow in their footsteps?

That seems to be the view of Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), who has suggested that the four day working week should be a realistic aspiration for most businesses by the end of the 21st century.

However is there a legal requirement for businesses to consider adopting a similar policy and if not, for what reasons they may wish to look at it anyway.

Entitlement to Rest

The UK’s rules on the hours that are worked by employees are set out in the Working Time Regulations 1998 (which reflect the EU Working Time Directive).

The main rules can be summarised as follows:

  • Employees can’t work more than an average of 48 hours in a week unless they have expressly opted out (they have the right to opt back in on notice) or they set their own hours
  • Employees are entitled to at least 11 hours of rest in any 24 hours
  • Employees are entitled to at least one 24 hour period of uninterrupted time off work every week

Surprisingly there is no legal requirement to give employees more than one day off each week, although in most businesses it wouldn’t be viable (or acceptable) for an employer to insist on its employees having only one day (rather than two days) off each week.

Flexible Working Requests (FWRs)

Employees who have 26 weeks’ continuous service have the right to make a FWR (under the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Flexible Working Regulations 2014).

The entitlement to make a FWR has widened in recognition of the fact that there are a range of legitimate reasons why employees might want to change their working patterns.

FWRs can seek to change an employee’s hours, the time/s they work, or the location from which they work. So, if an employee wants to propose a four day week, this is the obvious route for them to use.

Such an application should be dealt with by the employer in a reasonable manner and in accordance with the relevant Acas Code of Practice.

However it is important to stress that this is merely a right to make the ‘request’, rather than a right to insist that a working pattern is changed, and the law allows employers to reject FWRs on any of the following grounds:

  • The burden of additional costs
  • Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
  • Inability to re-organise work among existing staff
  • Detrimental impact on performance
  • Insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work
  • Planned structural changes

Why would employers propose a reduced working week if they don’t have to?

It may seem counter-intuitive to propose the introduction of a working pattern that involves paying the same amount but having employees available for work during fewer hours.

However, employers who are introducing this are betting on the increase in time off resulting in greater output during the reduced working hours.

Indeed, research has suggested that levels of employee productivity can vary depending on the day of the week on which work is being carried out (e.g. many office workers would identify Friday as a particularly unproductive day).

What is particularly interesting though is that the mooted reduction in the working week seems to run entirely contrary to the trend of employees working longer and longer hours (e.g. starting earlier, finishing later, and coming in on their days off).

In some workplaces, being seen to be present for long periods has increasingly been viewed as not merely the norm, but as important (if not more important) than actual output.

Would a four day week be good for mental health?

It seems logical that spending less time working and having a longer rest-break/weekend is going to improve employees’ mental health.

However, the 4:3 day ratio may not be the solution for all workplace ills and might in fact place more stress on staff who find that having fewer days in which to work simply leads to working longer on those days, or still working on days identified as rest days.

Given the increased focus in recent years on the mental wellbeing of staff, it seems likely that this will be something that Simply Business pays close attention to.

Implementing a four day week

Any business considering a four day week needs to think it through carefully and obtain specialist advice before taking any steps to implement the change.

The means by which a new working pattern can be introduced will depend on the circumstances, but it is likely that consultation with employees and/or employee representatives will form a crucial part of the process.

As ever, when an employer proposes to introduce any change to the terms and conditions of their staff it’s prudent to adopt a cautious approach.

Whilst it is difficult to imagine many employees being resistant to the principle of working fewer hours for the same pay, the devil (as they say) is in the detail.

If you are considering implementing a four day working week and require advice, or would like more information on any of the above, please contact a member of our Employment Law team today.

 

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Euan Lawrence

Associate Solicitor
Employment Law
ELawrence@LawBlacks.com
0113 227 9207
@EuanLawBlacks
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Euan Lawrence Blacks Solicitors LLP