Workers across the globe are demanding a new relationship with work and organising to secure fundamental labour rights, increased pay and better working conditions. In the global north, civil society is increasingly advocating for a four-day workweek as a key means of shifting the work-life balance. The campaign is picking up pace with the biggest-ever test of the concept, a six-month trial of the four-day workweek, now underway in the UK.

In many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has tilted the balance of power in the labour market, and workers find themselves in a better position to demand improved work conditions, higher salaries and greater job satisfaction. Several explanations have been given for an unusually high number of people quitting or switching jobs – a phenomenon dubbed the ‘the Great Resignation’ – including a higher incidence of severe burnout, a reordering of priorities and a desire for a more meaningful working life.

In the USA, the number of vacancies currently by far exceeds the number of job seekers. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, millions of US workers have voluntarily left their jobs during the pandemic, with a record 4.5 million resigning in November 2021. In France, the number of resignations also reached their highest level in 2021; other European countries have followed a similar pattern.

As employee discontent and work-related stress continue to rise, more and more workers are calling for change. This is reflected in intensified unionisation efforts in the USA, large-scale national strikes in Australia and the UK, among other countries, and growing support for remote working and flexible arrangements.

Hope that our working lives can change also motivates the movement promoting a switch to a four-day workweek. The idea is currently being put to the test in the UK, where dozens of companies have embarked on the largest trial of the four-day workweek concept. This is not the first pilot of its kind, as the idea has been gradually tested over the years. But it is the largest experiment so far.

The modern workweek

Although workdays and hours vary across countries and sectors, the five-day workweek is the most common arrangement. But the idea of a shortened workweek isn’t new. The current five-day model is itself the result of a reduction in working hours that is under a hundred years old. Previously, most people used to work six days out of seven, and much longer hours – often 70 or more a week.

In the USA, the long workweek was the norm until at least 1926, when Ford adopted the 40-hour week. This was later expanded to all workers through the 1938 Fair Labour Standards Act. Many countries around the world were quick to adopt this model or something similar, aligning their workweek and weekend to international markets.

Since then, calls for further adjustments to working hours have continued, most recently in the form of advocacy for the four-day workweek. For years, economists have suggested that further changes to the current model were needed, but while they helped prepare the ground, it took the pandemic to generate serious momentum.

The four-day model

The four-day workweek model comes in two varieties. The first is a compressed work schedule where the same number of hours are worked but spread over four rather than five days. The second – and most intensively advocated for – reduces the number of hours, resulting in a shorter workweek of 32 hours spread evenly over four days. Behind this model lies the idea of more focused working practices that make it possible to work fewer hours while increasing productivity, and therefore maintaining the same pay.

Several pilot studies have been conducted to gauge the impact of a shortened workweek. The largest until now was held in Iceland between 2015 and 2019, with 2,500 public sector workers taking part. This trials was considered a success, showing positive results for a range of wellbeing indicators including stress, burnout, health and work-life balance. Unlike the current trials in the UK, however, the Iceland study tested reduced working hours, but not specifically the four-day workweek.

The UK experiment includes more than 3,300 employees at 70 companies who will get an extra day off every week for six months, without a reduction in pay. The programme is being led by a civil society organisation, 4 Day Week Global, a think tank, Autonomy, and the 4 Day Week UK Campaign, in partnership with Boston College and the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. It seeks to investigate how the adjusted workweek affects productivity, employee wellbeing, gender equality and the environment.

The 4 Day Week Global initiative is also responsible for pilots elsewhere, including in Australia, Canada and the USA.

Voices from the frontline

Hazel Gavigan is the global campaigns and activation officer of 4 Day Week Global.


At 4 Day Week Global, it’s our ambition to make a four-day week the new default and reduced working time the new standard. The four-day week that we advocate for is very much a flexible model, not a rigid, ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ and is based on the general principle of the 100:80:100™ model – 100 per cent of the pay, for 80 per cent of the time and, crucially, in exchange for 100 per cent of the productivity or output.

The disruption to societal and workplace norms by the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the potential for very different models of work, for both workers and employers, and reinforced the need to rethink old, established patterns. We believe the future of work requires a shift away from a focus on time, as this is not an effective way to measure people’s contributions at work. Instead, we need to focus on measuring and rewarding collective outputs.

The four-day week we are campaigning for has countless cross-society benefits in terms of gender equality, sustainability and general improvements to health and happiness. Where implemented, it allows for better distribution of caring responsibilities, as reduced working time enables men to carry out a greater portion of labour within the home. This, in turn, helps remove barriers to women achieving senior positions in work, taking on leadership roles and pursuing training opportunities.

Up to now, most case studies on the four-day work week were conducted at an individual company level, with a few exceptions, such as Iceland. The purpose of our pilot programmes is to demonstrate that the positive outcomes achieved by individual businesses we’ve observed can be replicated on a much broader scale in a variety of countries and industries.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Hazel. Read the full interview here.

Change on the horizon

The idea appears to be popular. A 2019 poll in the USA found that two-thirds of respondents would prefer a contracted workweek, even if it meant working longer days. Motivations include considerations of work satisfaction and wellbeing and the desire to have more freedom and time to spend with family, relaxing and exploring interests.

From the point of view of employers, this does not have to mean lower productivity, as changes to working practices can reduce wasted time and enable greater focus on core tasks. Further, businesses adopting the four-day workweek will be more attractive to job seekers. At a time when they hold growing power in the job market, workers in several global north countries who are in a position to choose will be drawn to employers willing to prioritise their wellbeing and mental health, including those willing to adapt the workweek.

Some employers are seeing the opportunity. Research shows employers’ concerns about the four-day workweek declined during the pandemic: in the UK in 2019, 82 per cent of firms not offering a shortened workweek were concerned about productivity impacts, but this fell to 65 per cent by 2021.

In many countries, the trend of job vacancies outweighing job seekers is expected to continue for some time, giving workers continued leverage to promote change. The current movement is being driven mostly by women and young people, who have the greatest sense of dissatisfaction.

Millennials, now the biggest generation in the workforce, are demonstrating a particular willingness to leave positions that fail to provide a satisfactory work-life balance. A survey in the UK in 2021 found people aged 25 to 34 to be the most unhappy with their current jobs, with 77 per cent hoping to change roles within a year.

According to a 2022 report by Deloitte, women are also more likely to be looking for new roles: the study found that 40 per cent of women across 10 countries were actively looking for a change, with one of the main motivations being burnout. Another factor driving the ‘Great Resignation’ among women is the lack of flexibility in current working arrangements, and pressure for people to return to the office full time, putting an end to flexible pandemic working arrangements.

Women typically bear a disproportionate share of childcare and other responsibilities, so they are more inclined to seek flexibility in work hours and location. Lack of such opportunities, coupled with anger at the persistent gender pay gap, means women will likely remain at the forefront of demands for change.

Challenges to change

Despite growing momentum, many employers remain reticent.

In the USA, strong scepticism is fuelled by longstanding ideological opposition to labour rights. Some employers that have adopted the measure have used it has an opportunity to cut pay and benefits, which runs counter to the basic idea underlying the initiative and could end up discrediting it.

Even when the four-day workweek is introduced, improved employee welfare is not guaranteed. The quality of the work experience also matters. For workers to truly benefit from a contracted work schedule, they need to push for changed working practices and cultures.

Not everyone is set to benefit from a shortened workweek either. For the time being, it remains the preserve of global north nations with relatively high labour standards, as well as niche segments of global south economies. Many global south countries continue to grapple with issues such as high youth unemployment, low pay, child labour and poor work conditions, so the four-day workweek is unlikely to become a priority for them any time soon.

Even in global north nations, the benefits are unlikely to be evenly distributed, as the model may be impossible to implement in some industries, such as logistics or service jobs. As a result, unless it is accompanied by additional measures to improve work conditions across the board, its implementation could have the unintended consequence of deepening existing inequalities between people in four-day workweek jobs and those in frontline roles that are also often badly underappreciated and underpaid.

The four-day workweek initiative isn’t a panacea. But it’s one promising avenue to expand workers’ welfare and shows the value of civil society in advancing and testing ideas that improve lives. It offers an encouraging strand in the broader struggle for labour rights all over the world.


  • Companies should sign up to conduct pilot studies supported by the 4 Day Global Foundation to transition to a four-day workweek.
  • Employers should offer more flexible work conditions, including shorter hours, wherever possible.
  • Employers should prioritise the development of healthier work cultures supporting workers’ mental health and wellbeing.

Cover photo by 4 Day Week Campaign/Twitter