The four-day week in higher education: can we make it work?

With a culture of overwork eroding well-being among UK university staff, could a four-day working week be part of the solution? Rushana Khusainova looks at whether this mode of working is feasible in higher education

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12 Apr 2023
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The four-day working week has been trialled by companies around the world including Unilever in New Zealand, Microsoft in Japan and public sector bodies in Iceland. Employees are happier, less stressed and more productive as a result, the World Economic Forum reports. Plus, it’s potentially better for the environment. In 2022, 61 companies with around 2,900 employees in the UK took part in a four-day working week pilot leading to a reduction in burnout, stress and sick days, and improvements in staff retention and well-being.

There is a well-documented culture of overwork and poor well-being among university staff in the UK. So could a reduced working week address some of these issues?

Working week in HE

Most UK universities work in line with a general pattern of five working days and two rest days. Prospects.ac.uk states that, although a university lecturer’s contracted working hours are 35 per week on average, most lecturers work extra time, including evenings and weekends, to fit in teaching and administrative duties alongside research.

A culture of overwork was revealed in the first Times Higher Education work-life balance survey in 2017. A second THE work-life balance survey published in 2022 showed the problem had persisted, with excessive workloads affecting university staff’s happiness, mental health and relationships. Some participants reported working 10-hour days and on holidays. There is an unspoken norm that teaching must go on no matter what, and research projects are often prioritised above personal and family needs. However, the same THE research found that the introduction of flexible working had somewhat improved the work-life balance of university staff.

Can a four-day working week work in HE?

Higher education is a unique setting, with a variety of roles that all have their own specific pressures and requirements. Academic colleagues often have to split their time between research, teaching and administrative duties. While teaching is timetabled, research work is a self-directed process that requires time to think and long periods of focus or immersion in related literature or data sets. It is not uncommon to hear early-career academics saying: “I wrote most of my doctoral thesis during the night. There were no distractions and I could really concentrate on my writing.”

Given current workloads and the need to balance competing responsibilities (student enquiries awaiting responses versus a research paper submission deadline), introducing a four-day working week in universities would be challenging.

Four-day working week perspectives

A four-day working week is ideal if your work is fairly standardised and repetitive. This is not the case for most researchers, as Heiner Evanschitzky, professor and chair of marketing at Alliance Manchester Business School, points out: “For research staff, it doesn’t make a difference which contract you’ve got: if you’re invited to revise and resubmit a manuscript, you’ll have – say – 30 days,” he says.

“You can’t then get back to the journal editor and say that you only work four days and therefore want to get 20 per cent more time for the revision. They’ll laugh at you.

“I guess if you want to make it work, deadlines would always have to be given on the basis of ‘working days’. So, in my example, 30 days for a revision – it would mean 30 working days, which might be six weeks on a five-day week or almost seven weeks if you’re on a four-day week. I’m not sure if this is feasible.”

But, faced with high workloads, publication expectations and a general culture of out-of-hours work, is it possible to be more productive and complete the same workloads in fewer hours? Some people believe it is, within reasonable limits.

“You can certainly do more with less, and we are all wired differently,” says Miles Weaver, associate professor in systemic sustainability and supply chain management at Edinburgh Napier University Business School.

“Yet we all struggle with too much ‘noise’ – such as email and Zoom – and really need that ‘focus’ time. Much of our academic work is stimulating but warrants deep uninterrupted thought, whenever that may be. If my brain is in the right gear and clear, then I can always do more.”

What is clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for higher-education professionals. With such a variety of roles and contracts, universities need to offer different options for working that suit different staff needs and commitments. Change to the working week is therefore more achievable in stages with flexibility from both sides.

“There are likely to be different models of the four-day working week that could work well for staff and universities,” says Will Harvey, professor of leadership at the University of Bristol Business School.

“One option is giving staff the opportunity to work on a smaller number of days and choosing to take the Monday or the Friday off. Another might be to take Monday mornings and Friday afternoons off to extend the weekend. Both might be convenient for staff and are likely to be less operationally disruptive for universities.

“Some flexibility from staff and universities to tailor to their respective needs is likely to be more effective than a rigid one-size-fits-all approach.”

Some universities have started offering or trialling options for more flexible working arrangements, such as compressed working weeks.

Lenara Urazaeva, deputy student administration manager at the University of Bristol Business School, works a nine-day fortnight, which she claims has brought marked benefits to her productivity and well-being.

“The four-day week is beneficial to me because it gives me more time to do things that reduce my stress levels and improve my health in numerous ways,” she says.

“I have more time to meditate and exercise, enjoy my hobbies and spend time with loved ones, and I feel inspired and energised to start the working week after having an extended weekend.” 

Conversations with colleagues in academic and professional services roles across the sector suggest there is a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. Many have said that it would be great to have an option to work reduced hours. Since workloads in higher education usually fluctuate throughout the academic year, it makes sense to work less when possible given that, at other times, working hours will soar. However, as a first step towards supporting sustainable and balanced work lives, the sector must first address the unhealthy culture of overwork and heroism in academia.

Rushana Khusainova is a lecturer in marketing and qualified coach at the University of Bristol.

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