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Is The Five-Day Week Broken?

Is The Five-Day Week Broken?
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Marketing Consultant - babelmonkey

The Pandemic has changed much about the way companies conduct their business. The concept of a 4-day working week being better for employee wellbeing was floated as far back as 1956 as part of a presidential election campaign in the USA. So, with advances in technology, automation, and a Pandemic that's given the global workforce the opportunity to rethink how they want to live their lives, is the five-day week now past its sell-by date?

There have been many changes to the way companies run their business and many of those changes are directly attributable to the Pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. Hybrid working is the most obvious of these and the rise in the number of vacancies for permanent remote working. The 4-day working week idea is gaining traction too though it may surprise you to know this is not a new idea. Now, with the workforce expecting a more equal ‘work/life balance’, we recap how the 5-day working week came about and look at the implications of switching to the 4-day model.

So, how did we get to have weekdays and weekends? Before the industrial revolution, the non-gentrified worked every day, usually for as long as they could stay on their feet. By the nineteenth century and with the industrial revolution, workers could expect Sundays, as a day of religious significance, off as a day of rest, however, for many it became a day for letting their hair down. Monday absences became a problem for productivity - and saw a rise in the number of accidents inevitably causing shutdowns on the lines. So, factory owners made Saturday a half-day, giving workers the opportunity to have their fun, encouraging rest (and possibly religious reflection) on a Sunday and making Mondays more productive again.

The full weekend, as we know it currently in the UK, has its roots in a factory in Nottingham that opened in 1933, operated by John Boot, chairman of the Boots corporation. The factory was so efficient, it produced an abundance of stock. Rather than risk workers’ jobs, Mr Boot shut production down on Saturdays and Sundays. He found workers showing up ready for the week ahead having had more time off and noted reduced absenteeism and increased productivity. Unsurprisingly then, by 1934, Saturday and Sunday weekends were official Boots policy.

In the USA, Saturday was added to the become the modern weekend by acknowledging Shabbat, the most sacred part of the week for the many Jewish workers. Shabbat begins at nightfall on Fridays and finishes after sunset on Saturdays. In 1908, a mill in New England allowed a two-day weekend so its Jewish workers could observe Shabbat, but the two-day weekend didn’t really become a ‘thing’ until 1926 when Henry Ford, of car-maker fame, set down a 40-hour working week with Saturdays and Sundays off. It was officially adopted in the USA in 1932 in an effort to ease the unemployment issues arising from the effects of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression.

So, that’s the modern history of it. And now, we’re talking about the 4-day week which will, in many cases, see employees work fewer hours for the same money. Richard Nixon started talking about the idea back in 1956 when he expressed his (re-election) aim that within 10 years, the 4-day working week would be the norm: “to promote a new way of life….” by using the forces of scientists and technicians so that “back-breaking toil and mind-wearying tension will be left to machines and electronic devices.” Nixon recognised the desire for a better work/life balance than the 5-day week allowed.

Advances in technology have certainly made it possible for more work to be conducted successfully remotely and many businesses have embraced that. And if all this technology is available, wouldn’t it stand to reason that President Nixon’s predictions have come true – machines and electronic devices are carrying far more of the workload and allow us to work more quickly than before. So, why haven’t we recognised that and reduced the standard working week? Have we found more work to do or have the existing tasks simply expanded to fill the time we’re expected to be at work?

Switching to the 4-day working week isn’t without its challenges. Many industries such as healthcare, emergency services, production, manufacturing, warehouses, etc., will still need to operate on their current schedules so they will have to increase their workforce to allow current workers to operate on a 4-day week. This will, in turn, increase costs for those businesses with additional payroll costs, holiday pay, sickness, maternity and paternity pay, pensions, and so on, without seeing any additional output to offset those costs.

The economy is going through the toughest time in more than three decades with cost-of-living and inflation rising sharply and steeply. Many small and medium-sized businesses are still trying to recover from the effects of lockdown and feeling the financial squeeze. They’re struggling to recruit new staff, taxes have increased, and bills are rising for businesses the same as the cost-of-living crisis is affecting staff. At this point in time, should we be keeping a 5-day working week and using the fifth day to increase productivity levels and potentially, save the business (and the worker's jobs) in the process?

On the other hand, a better-rested workforce with an increased sense of work/life balance is more likely to be productive for the hours they do work. Reducing the number of days staff are required to work, especially if they are required to be on location, will also reduce their commuting which will have a positive effect on the wellbeing of staff. Companies offering a 4-day week are likely to find it easier to attract and retain staff. Conversely, businesses continuing a 5-day working week may find it difficult to do both.

For companies not able or willing to operate on reduced days, retaining a 5-day week could mean an increased opportunity to encourage job sharing, with the 5-days being split over two people. Although this increases payroll costs, it would also lead to a greater number of staff familiar with the business and trained in the work being available to cover holiday and sickness.

The 4-day week is being trialled in the UK by 70 companies representing more than 3,300 employees across a range of industries including food and beverage, banking, online retail, and recruitment. Atom Bank introduced the 4-day week in November 2021 allowing staff to choose to take either Friday or Monday as their additional rest day whilst retaining the same pay as they'd been awarded for a 5-day working week. The bank has stated they believe the 5-day week to be outdated in the 21st century and want their staff to have a better work/life balance so they can be more productive whilst at work. When Iceland conducted a similar experiment between 2015 and 2019 with public employees, they reported major well-being benefits. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based financial company, trialled a 4-day week in 2018 and the results were impressive enough that the policy was implemented permanently. In 2019, Microsoft Japan’s experiment resulted in a whopping 40% increase in productivity!

Fewer hours, for the same money, with a 40% increase in output – if our UK experiment delivers a similar outcome, the 4-day working week should be a shoo-in.


ASL Recruitment was established in 1999 and has been serving Hastings and the surrounding area ever since placing temporary and permanent roles across a variety of sectors including Industrial and Manufacturing, Legal, Finance, Marketing, Technology and Office Support, from junior up to board level. Our co-founder and Managing Director, Jason Perry is an HR specialist and a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development


As an aside, not all countries have five weekdays and of those that do, not all of them observe Saturday and Sunday. At the time of writing, Djibouti, Iran, and Somalia observe only Friday as a non-working day, in Nepal, Saturday is their one day off. Of the two-day weekends, Brunei Darussalam, Aceh Provence (On Sumatra, Indonesia) and Sarawak (in Malaysia), they observe Fridays and Sundays. Their weekends run over Friday and Saturday in Israel, Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt (and others).