As Stephen Fry pointed out, the working week is a social construct, not a scientific fact. What’s more, there’s no real backing for it in law, in theory, or in reality. This means that, in principle, there should be no real barrier to the UK (or anywhere else) adopting a four-day working week. In practice, the situation may be rather more complicated.
The history of the five-day working week
Throughout most of history, most people simply worked when there was work to be done. That often meant 7 days a week, at least for part of the year.
In the early 19th century, it started to become more common for workers to have Sundays off. There were, however, notable exceptions to this such as domestic workers. These were generally permitted time off to go to church but it had to be fitted around their regular duties.
In the early 20th century, factories in the USA started the practice of shutting down on Friday afternoons and reopening on Mondays. The first major industrialist to support this practice was Henry Ford. Like his lesser-known colleagues, he wanted to attract Jewish workers by eliminating the clash between his working hours and their sabbath.
It took until the 1930s for the practice to make its way to the UK. Entrepreneur John Boot (of Boots Corporation) tested it in his Nottingham factory in 1933. The change was so successful, that it was made permanent in 1934. Since then, it has gradually become the official standard of UK work – except when it isn’t.
The many exceptions to the five-day working week
Realistically, the percentage of people working Monday to Friday 9-5 or 9-6 is probably fairly low. In office jobs, it’s quite common for companies to set core hours, usually 10-4. Staff need to be available during these hours. They can, however, adjust their exact start and end times to suit themselves, as long as they put in the requisite number of hours.
Outside of offices, it’s practically unheard of for businesses to operate to a strict Monday to Friday 9-5 or 9-6 working pattern. Most businesses operate longer hours so people can use them no matter what hours they are working. Some businesses open shorter hours because they expect high volumes in short periods.
Certain industry sectors just could not operate to a strict Monday to Friday 9-5 or 9-6 working pattern. Agriculture is probably the most obvious example of this. It also applies to large chunks of the public sector, notably the emergency services. Then there are entrepreneurs/freelancers who set their own working hours.
The 32-hour working week
A less literal interpretation of the four-day working week is the 32-hour working week. This still gives employees fewer working hours for the same pay but allows for more flexibility. The question then becomes whether this change would be at least cost-neutral for employers. This is likely to depend very much on the nature of the job in question.
In particular, it’s likely to depend on whether or not the work can wait until the employee gets back from their rest period. If it can, and the additional rest makes the employee more productive, then a four-day week may indeed be at least cost-neutral. If it can’t, however, then an employer will need to find someone else to cover for the employee on rest. They will therefore incur an extra cost without any increase in productivity to compensate.
What’s more, recruiting and retaining these extra employees could pose a significant challenge for employers. Some business sectors are already suffering from a shortage of labour, particularly among skilled employees. Even those that aren’t will see their administrative burden and labour costs increase as they take on more staff.
Overall, therefore, it seems unlikely that the four-day working week will become the standard amongst workers. With that said, it may well become the new standard amongst those who currently work a regular five-day working week.