Credit: Michael Nutt/Wikipedia

Is it time for a four-day week?

Clothing firm Uniqlo is to trial a four-day, 40-hour week in Japan, but it could be some time before it becomes the norm.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2016

If you were working for Uniqlo in Japan, you’d be home by now. Or at least you would be in October. That’s when Fast Retailing, the parent of the casual fashion firm, will begin offering a four-day, 40-hour week to roughly a fifth (10,000) of its employees in both store and office roles, according to Bloomberg.

Now, Japan’s not exactly known for its mastery of work-life balance – they have their own word for ‘death by overwork’, after all (karoshi), so this might come as a surprise. But there are signs of a shift in attitudes over there, with PM Shinzo Abe saying Japan’s working culture ‘falsely beatifies’ long hours.

The reasons behind this decision are less ideological of course – Uniqlo hopes the policy will tackle poor retention rates among its staff and save ‘wasted’ training costs – but the effect is much the same. The rigid working patterns of the past are being reconsidered everywhere, and flexible working is on the rise.

And why not? Europe and America moved from a six-day to a five-day working week during the 20th century as productivity lifted people out of hand-to-mouth poverty, and Thank God It’s Thursday has a certain ring to it…

Many people would be happier working harder for four days in exchange for an extra day off, but they might also be healthier. New research from Columbia University indicates managers working long hours have a higher incidence of stroke and depression, while Professor John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health told the Guardian last year that a four-day week could reduce stress, mental ill-health and high blood pressure.

‘When you look at the way we lead our lives, the stress that people are under, the pressure on time and sickness absence, [work-related] mental health is clearly a major issue,’ he said. It would also help some people balance their careers with childcare or the need to look after elderly relatives.

Sadly (or not, according to MT editor Matthew Gwyther – ‘what am I supposed to do on the fifth day - rest like the Lord?’), it’s not likely to take off any time soon, at least outside of shift work and other roles that easily lend themselves to job sharing.

Aside from the fact that not everyone wants to sit at a desk for ten hours at a time (especially if eating lunch al desko), it just isn’t appropriate for many careers. The sole receptionist at a small business can’t leave their post when customers might call, just as an ambitious lawyer at a City firm can’t take Fridays off if they want to make partner.

Without state intervention, the Monday to Thursday working week won’t break into the mainstream for white collar workers, because there are just too many industries that couldn’t switch to a four-day week unless everyone else did too. Which bank, for instance, would be the first to close for an extra day?

This isn’t to say white collar workers won’t eventually end up doing four days a week. Job sharing may well become the norm, allowing most businesses to operate five or more days a week but not requiring the same of all staff.  

The key will perhaps be how the economy adapts to the ageing population. If businesses find a way of accommodating the growing legion of 60- and 70-somethings who can work, but probably not full time and possibly not at full pace, then part-time and flexible working could become engrained and a widespread four-day week would become a possiblity.

If they don’t, and unless productivity starts to climb fast, the developed world’s increasingly hideous dependency ratio will probably mean workers have to put in more hours to support the growing millions of hungry pensioners. It’s a watching brief, but for most of us the four-day week remains firmly in the dream world.

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