Posted: Tue 9th Apr 2024

Welsh Government appointed ‘Working Group’ endorses public sector 4-day working week trial

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales

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A Welsh Government appointed group has concluded that a 4-day working week in devolved public services is a “progressive and innovative way of working which merits further consideration.”

In April 2023, the Welsh Government took a significant step towards exploring the feasibility of a 4-day work week in the public sector by establishing a dedicated Working Group under the Workforce Partnership Council (WPC).

This move came in response to growing calls for more flexible working arrangements and aimed to delve into the practical and service delivery implications of such a change.

The Working Group, embracing a social partnership model, gathered input from various stakeholders, including 4-day week practitioners, academics, and the Scottish Government, across eight meetings.

It established four subgroups – which had representation from Flintshire Council –  to focus on different aspects of the initiative, eventually reaching a consensus on a shared definition of the 4-day week concept.

Contrary to a one-size-fits-all approach, the Group highlighted the importance of a pilot program that is willingly embraced by both employers and employees, underpinned by thorough discussions and negotiations.

The key recommendation encourages devolved public sector employers, trade unions, and the Welsh Government to collaborate through the WPC to identify potential participants for a 4-day week pilot, taking into account the diverse nature of public services.

The backdrop to the Working Group’s establishment was a blend of political debate, public interest, and academic inquiry into the potential benefits and challenges of reduced working hours without a loss in pay.

Previous discussions and reports, including a notable debate in the Senedd and insights from the Future Generations Commissioner, laid the groundwork for this exploratory initiative.

The Group’s findings and recommendations underline an innovative stance towards work-life balance, suggesting that a 4-day work week could lead to numerous benefits, including improved employee wellbeing, recruitment, and retention, as well as potential increases in productivity.

The Working Group recognises various risks associated with the introduction of a four-day work week for employers, service delivery, and employees but believes these can be managed and mitigated through careful planning and consultation with workers and their unions.

Identified risks include:

  • Equality risks: Potential widening of inequalities between office and frontline workers, especially in continuous operations, which could negatively impact workers based on gender, race, and other characteristics, and affect entitlements to welfare benefits.
  • Financial risks: Costs for employers to hire additional staff to maintain service levels after reducing working hours.
  • Undeclared hours and work intensity risks: Increased undeclared working hours or work intensity as employees try to complete the same workload in fewer hours.
  • Workforce development risks: Reduced time for learning and development due to decreased working hours and increased workload pressures.
  • Service delivery risks: Challenges in maintaining 24/7 services without increasing staff numbers and potential impacts on service quality, exemplified by the practice of “call cramming” in social care.
  • Personal risks: Hidden costs for workers, such as higher home heating bills or leisure expenses during additional free time, and the loss of the workplace as a refuge.
  • Team management risks: Increased complexity in managing teams and maintaining communication and engagement across more complicated shift patterns.

The Working Group has made the following recommendations based upon the conclusions above:

Recommendation 1

Public sector employers, trade unions and the Welsh Government should, through the WPC, redouble efforts to identify an organisation or organisations who are ready and willing to pilot the 4-Day Week.

Recommendation 2

If any pilot of the 4-day week takes place in devolved public services, the following eight principles should be considered:

  1. Pilot(s) must not be imposed and must be the product of a willing employer or employers and their workforces.
  2. Pilot(s) must be the product of consultation and negotiation between the relevant employer(s), workers and their trade union(s), designed, implemented and evaluated in full social partnership.
  3. Pilot(s) must not put workers’ terms, conditions and/or their welfare entitlements at risk.
  4. Pilot(s) must allow for maximum subsidiarity and variation in pilot design, implementation and timeframe, reflecting local needs and circumstances.
  5. Pilot(s) must set out clearly intended outcomes and mutually agreed expectations of the employer and workers.
  6. Pilot(s) must be underpinned by fairness and equity and must not entrench existing inequalities or become a source of fresh division.
  7. Pilot(s) must not mandate or make assumptions around how workers should spend newly freed up non-working hours.
  8. Pilot(s) must not take place without sufficient lead-in time – this is necessary to enable employers and workers to prepare and ready themselves, and for communications with service-users and stakeholders.

Recommendation 3

Consider the benefits and costs of engaging external expertise in the design and evaluation of any future 4-day week pilot.

Recommendation 4

The Welsh Government and Social Partners should note this Working Group’s definition that a “4-day working week means no loss of pay or benefits, combined with a 20% reduction to normal contracted hours, while maintaining current levels of service delivery”, whilst also recognising organisations may flex that definition in ways that work for them.

Recommendation 5

Consideration should be given to the use of the term ‘shorter working week’ or ‘shorter working day’ as opposed to ‘4-day week’. The latter is widely used by political and media sources, but it may not aid public understanding. It is often widely misinterpreted and taken in its literal sense to mean a shutdown on one of the 5 days of a traditional working week, potentially leading to inaccurate fears about access to and provision of services.

In response to the group’s recommendations , Joel James MS, Shadow Minister for Social Partnership, criticised the proposal, arguing it could exacerbate disparities between public and private sector workers.

He said: “The major problem of the four-day working week is that it cannot be rolled out across ever sector, meaning that it will create a two-tier working environment, with office based public sector workers obtaining a privilege that cannot be enjoyed by most private sector workers and many frontline public sector workers.

 “By introducing a four-day working week the Labour Welsh Government would effectively be reducing the hours worked by the public sector for the same pay. This is not the same as many four-day working trials in the private sector that have simply allowed workers to work the same hours over four days instead of five days.

 “The Welsh Conservatives propose that the same benefits of a four-day working week can be obtained by improving the flexibility workers to take time off to balance family life and other commitments.”

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