Status: 30.09.2023, 20:30 p.m.
By: Marc Winkelmann
nibru_Surrealistic_collage_in_bright_colors_of_women_and_men_w_d34953e9-c492-4920-b564-76d82f28418b.jpg © N. Bruckmann/Midjourney (machine-created*)
The discussion about the four-day week is emotional and vehement. A pilot test is now to provide facts.
Work structures the day, secures one's livelihood and brings recognition. But it also puts you under stress, leads to psychological problems and makes you sick. So would it be wise to reduce the time spent in the office or on the construction site in order to preserve the positive aspects and eliminate the negatives?
For a new study, the Berlin-based agency Intraprenör, the international organization 4 Day Week Global and the Chair for Transformation of the World of Work at the University of Münster have joined forces to investigate precisely this question. They want to know whether the four-day week has proven itself in everyday life and what disadvantages arise from it.
Companies throughout Germany that want to participate in the trial can apply until the end of November. The practical phase will run from February to August 2024, after which the scientific evaluation will take place.
Working four days and being paid for five days – this has been the subject of much discussion in recent months, sometimes vehemently. Top managers in particular came forward with pithy words. Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges said "feel-good issues" such as the four-day week were "absurd in view of declining productivity." For BMW boss Oliver Zipse, the debate is an "irritating signal", VW boss Oliver Blume said that discussions about more work-life balance or a four-day week with equal pay were going "in the wrong direction". BDA Managing Director Steffen Kampeter considers the proposal "economically a milkmaid's bill", Stihl boss Michael Traub even sees it as "the end of Germany as an industrial location". He threatens: "We can also produce elsewhere."
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Heated debates about working time
Critics argue that Germany cannot afford to risk such experiments, especially at the moment. Corona, the war, rising costs and collapsing profits have severely restricted the financial leeway. The economy is ailing, projects are being postponed, and there is not even enough money for urgently needed housing, as the recently announced construction freeze of 60,000 units at Vonovia shows. Added to this is the shortage of skilled workers.
Proponents, on the other hand, argue that the work as it is currently organized has demonstrably noticeable consequences. The intensification of work, for example through digitalization, has increased, and Corona has also shown how much pressure many people are under. Absenteeism due to mental illness has increased.
And then there is the young generation that is just starting their careers. She attaches more importance to the compatibility of job and leisure time than previous generations and sees less fulfillment in giving up her private life for a career. Working less than 40.4 hours a week, as Germans do on average, is a tempting prospect for quite a few.
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Work-life balance more important than career
The Hans Böckler Foundation recently asked Germans why exactly people want to reduce their working hours. Accordingly, the proponents would like to see a four-day week, because
- they want to have more time for themselves (97%),
- they want to spend more time with their family (89%),
- they would like more time for hobbies, sports, volunteering, etc. (87%),
- they want to reduce their workload (75%),
- they have health problems (31%).
They were also asked about the reasons against a four-day week. According to them, the opponents of the concept said that
- they enjoy their work (86%),
- there would be no change in the work processes (82%),
- the work would otherwise not be possible (77%),
- their work cannot simply rest for a day (67%),
- they could not afford it financially (51%),
- they often have to fill in for a colleague (38%),
- they would otherwise not be able to advance in their careers (34%).
The initiators of the planned study in the coming year observe that the disputes have so far been predominantly opinion-driven and anecdotal. Carsten Meier introduced the four-day week seven years ago at the Intraprenör agency, which he founded, and advises companies on change processes such as reducing working hours. He has been surprised by the impact that the topic has recently acquired, he says. "The strong emotions in the debate show that a convention is being shaken that we have all not questioned for a long time."
German discussion lags behind other countries
With the study, he wants to contribute to objectivity. Other countries are already further ahead in collecting data – in England, for example, almost 2022 employees in 3000 companies took part in a similar trial in 61 and provided new insights. Meier is also aiming for a similar number of participants for Germany. If you want to participate, you have to pay between 500 euros (less than 10 employees) and 15,200 euros (more than 1000), depending on the size, but you will also be looked after extensively, according to the promise.
Support comes from mentors who have already gone through the process themselves and the scientific team at the University of Münster. In addition, they will be linked to participating companies. If employees are willing to do so, their individual well-being can also be included in the analysis; digital trackers would then monitor sleep and heart rate.
Carsten Meier says that companies should clarify a few questions for themselves in advance, such as how the temporary four-day trial can be reconciled with the applicable collective agreement. "In case of doubt, we have a network of employment law experts who can advise on this."
Four-day week with many options
He also points out that there are various options for implementation. Working from Monday to Thursday and staying at home on Fridays: this is just one model among many. For the study, the aim is to find the right one in each case. In addition, an entire company does not have to participate. The experiment can be limited to individual departments or subsidiaries. Ideally, if there is also a control group available, which – unlike their colleagues – would not be able to enjoy more free time, he could help to moderate the cultural break.
According to the organization 4 Day Week Global, studies in other countries have shown that the number of sick leaves and burn-out cases decreased, the environment and the climate benefited because fewer people had to commute between work and home, and that productivity remained the same thanks to a change in the organization of work. In England, more than 90 percent of the companies declared that they would stick to the model after the end of the test.
At the same time, the initiators admit that there is still a lack of long-term studies and data from large companies. So far, it has been mainly small and medium-sized companies that have entered into the experiment. Perhaps this will change soon in Germany, even without a study. IG Metall wants to enforce not only 8.5 percent more salary and partial retirement in the upcoming collective bargaining round of the steel industry, but also a 32-hour week. Incidentally, it would not be as drastic as the step sounds. Working hours have already been reduced in the past – to currently 35 hours per week.
*This image was created with the help of machine assistance. A text-to-image model was used for this purpose. Selection of the model, development of the model instructions and final editing of the image: Art Director Nicolas Bruckmann.