31st May 2023


How does a 32-hour working week sound?

  • One pilot found absenteeism was reduced, recruitment increased and the number of resignations fell slightly. In addition, male employees increased their childcare time by around 30 percent (Photo: Unsplash)
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For years, the EU's strategies for responding to an increasingly globalised world have focused on economic growth, competitiveness, and jobs.

It is only in recent years, particularly in the wake of climate change and the coronavirus crisis, that the environmental and social pillars have gained prominence in these roadmaps — and the objective of growth has been supplemented by the adjectives "smart", "sustainable" or "inclusive".

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  • 'Economic growth cannot be an end in itself' said Ursula von der Leyen at the opening of this week's Beyond Growth conference (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)

"Economic growth cannot be an end in itself," said the EU Commission president herself on Monday (15 May) at the opening of the Beyond Growth conference.

"We cannot achieve real social progress if we continue to rely on outdated measures of progress such as gross domestic product (GDP) and supply-and-demand or shareholder-based economic models," according to an initiative from the not-for-profit think tank Friends of Europe.

For EU economic affairs commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, the era of growth is not behind us, but it needs a shift towards sustainability and quality beyond GDP, he said in an interview with EUobserver.

Something similar is happening in the world of work. Several sectors, from rail transport to healthcare, are suffering from labour shortages, but workers are no longer willing to accept just any job or poor working conditions.

Since 2013, the battle to attract and retain talent in the EU has intensified. By the end of 2022, the vacancy rate was around three percent, Eurostat statistics show.

The coronavirus exacerbated a situation that was already in desperate need of change. With the pandemic, domestic workloads, stress, and burnout increased and eventually, as in the US (and to a lesser extent in European countries), workers left their jobs en masse. A phenomenon that quickly became known as the 'Great Resignation'.

In the aftermath of the coronavirus, concepts such as flexibility or work-life balance began to catch on with employees and employers alike, as did a previously unpopular question: what if we worked less?

Several studies have shown that the 32-hour (or four-day) working week is beneficial for employees and employers.

The basics are simple: the same (or higher) productivity, the same pay — but in less time.

The idea is not new, but it has been revitalised in recent years, and trade unions around the world are now calling for more ambitious action to expand the scope of what have been small-scale pilot programmes in many countries.

In Spain, several initiatives (at national, regional, and company level) are currently under way. The first, from the ministry of industry, trade and tourism, will provide funding of up to €150,000 to small and medium-sized enterprises that reduce working hours by at least 10 percent over a two-year period.

In Belgium, workers already have the right to work a four-day workweek instead of a five-day week without losing pay, but not to work fewer hours.

Meanwhile, the largest pilot of its kind has taken place in the UK. More than 60 companies and 3,000 employees worked four days over six months to test the impact of the model.

The results made headlines across Europe. Absenteeism was reduced, recruitment increased and the number of resignations fell slightly. In addition, male employees increased their childcare time by around 30 percent.

Their employers confirmed the positive impact and most said they would continue to use the model.

Unchanged in a century

More than 100 years ago, Spain was the first country in Europe to introduce the eight-hour working day.

Today we consider it the norm, but from a historical perspective, before the trade union movement, factory working hours, introduced by the Industrial Revolution, were around six days per week and 10-16 hours a day.

"We cannot have the same working day that we had a century ago," insisted Spanish labour minister Yolanda Díaz earlier this year. "We must work to live, not live to work."

Industrial, social and economic changes have always shaped the world of work, and the present is no different.

The EU-27 is undergoing a transition to a green and digital Europe, which will require time to acquire new skills and changes in working time.

Technology also promises to make our time more productive, and shorter working hours can facilitate women's access to the labour market by improving work-life balance and sharing care time within households.

Moreover, reducing working hours also means reducing individual carbon footprints, according to an early study by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

An 'embryonic' European pilot scheme

At European level, a 32-hour pilot project is being studied, the results of which will be evaluated in the European Parliament with a view to developing new initiatives and measures, although the study is still in its embryonic stages.

"This is an evolution that is coming and has already started," María del Carmen Barrera, vice-president of the European Economic and Social Committee's workers' group, told EUobserver. "What we want now is to be in the process so that it is done in the best conditions and benefits all Europeans."

In order not to leave anyone behind in this transition, collective bargaining and public incentives will be needed to avoid inequalities between sectors. "States are there to correct any inequalities that may arise," she added.

But first things first. "There is still a long way to go before we really know the full impact of the four-day week," says Hugo Cuello, who has prepared a report for the commission on the validity of the European pilot projects.

With the evidence available, "we can't yet know if it's suitable for every company, every sector, every firm," says Cuello. "We need to understand under what conditions it works and for whom.

"Also, how much it costs and how cost-effective it is, in order to assess which public policies are best suited to achieve this goal."

His analysis concludes that there are three main limitations to the validity of these pilots, which provide recommendations for improving the future design of these models.

The first is that these pilots do not use rigorous methods to know whether the impact achieved during these periods is due to the programme or to other circumstances.

Secondly, there is a lack of depth in the study and the information reported: the results are not published in academic journals, the questions are not subjected to the same level of rigour, etc.

And lastly, there is a lack of guidance in these pilots on how to scale up these programmes.

"The companies that participate are usually motivated and believe in the cause, but this does not mean that the results are representative or can be extrapolated to other companies," concludes Cuello.


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