UK civil servants make bid for four-day working week

By on 12/12/2023 | Updated on 12/12/2023
Photo by Anete Lusina via Pexels

Civil servants in the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have launched a campaign to work a four-day week.

Staff at the department have called for a pilot scheme involving more than 21,000 employees, and are backed by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) which delivered a petition to Defra bosses asking them to agree to the trial.

The bid for greater flexibility comes a month after it emerged that the Cabinet Office had drafted a letter to civil servants requesting that they spend 60% of their time “in offices or on official business” – the latest of several moves by the government to curb working from home.

PCS said a survey of its members across all UK government departments found that 40% would consider quitting if they were forced to return to the office for a required minimum.

On the campaign for a shorter working week, Mark Sertwotka, general secretary of PCS said: “Evidence suggests a four-day week would lead to a better work-life balance for staff and could improve productivity for the employer.

“Previous trials have led to a reduction in sick leave and improvements to staff retention and satisfaction. If Defra wants to seriously address the issues of employee burnout, stress and poor wellbeing they will listen to our members and implement this pilot.”

Improved wellbeing and retention

Defra employees are also backed by the 4 Day Week Campaign which ran the UK’s biggest four-day working week pilot last year in partnership with 4 Day Week Global, the think tank Autonomy and researchers at the University of Cambridge and Boston College.

Nearly 3,000 private sector employees and 61 companies took part in the trial, which ran for six months from June 2022. The results showed that 92% of the companies that took part had decided to continue offering a four-day week.

Read more: Australia’s public service commission rejects four-day week bid

The trial found that business performance and productivity was maintained across the board; that revenue rose by 1.4% on average; that employees’ stress, anxiety, fatigue and burnout had declined by up to 71%; and that measures of work-life balance had improved.

It also found that there was a 57% decline in the likelihood that an employee would quit, and that there was a 65% reduction in the number of sick days.

Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, said that a four-day working week with no loss of pay had been “tested time and time again with great success in the private sector so it’s only right and fair to see if these benefits can apply to public sector workers”.

Calls to ‘stop the experiment’ at local authorities

Some local authorities in the UK have run successful four-day week trials, in which staff work for 80% of what would usually be considered full time with no loss of pay. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities sent out formal guidance in October saying the government would “consider options” if performance declined at any council offering the arrangements.

According to Personnel Today, South Cambridgeshire District Council continued with its four-day week trial despite calls from a minister to “stop the experiment”, offering evidence that it had reduced agency worker spending and improved recruitment.

If the trial was granted, Defra would be the first central government department in the UK to trial a four-day week. 

Four-day work week considered in Scotland, Belgium and Australia

It was reported in May that civil servants working for the devolved Scottish government in the UK could be offered a four-day working week in exchange for pay restraint.

In its medium-term financial strategy, the Scottish government said it was “committed to exploring with trade unions and employers further opportunities for developing non-pay benefits”, and that the public sector would be invited to participate in a pilot of the scheme.

It said it sought “a fair but fiscally sustainable approach to public sector pay” given that the pay bill is equivalent to half of its resource budget, and that a four-day working week could “in the longer term… be an opportunity to limit the cost burden of pay awards to employers, act as a lever to improve productivity, and optimise the role of automation and digitalisation of services, all while creating high value job opportunities and contributing to the wellbeing economy”.

Read more: Scottish civil servants ‘could be offered four-day week’

In early 2022, the federal government in Belgium was understood to be looking into whether civil servants ought to be able to work a four-day week to match greater flexibility introduced in the private sector under a new labour deal. Under the deal, private sector employees are allowed to work a shorter week provided they make up the hours over four days.

Petra De Sutter, Belgium’s minister of public administration, said: “If there is also a demand among civil servants for such a four-day regime, in order to better balance work and private life, I am certainly willing to investigate what is possible.”  

In June, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) rejected a bid by federal government workers and unions for a four-day work week.

The idea was that public servants could be allowed to work just under 9.5 hours per day over four days rather than the current 7.5 hours a day over five, and receive their full pay. However, the commission said its chief negotiator Peter Riordan had considered the request but that it was “unable to support this initiative”.

According to the APSC, Riordan took the view that there was already “a range of flexibilities… for APS employees to achieve an appropriate work-life balance”, including part-time or “compressed” working arrangements, “flextime” and other flexible working arrangements it said might be agreed as part of future bargaining processes.

Read more: Belgium to explore four-day working week for civil servants

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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