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Operating Compressed Hours (Four Day Work Week) – What Are The issues?

Several campaigns by trade unions, and in particular Public Sector Trade Unions, with the support of environmental groups are evident in the promotion of a four-day week. Proponents have argued that it could have a positive impact on the environment as it would likely result in less pollution from commuting, as well as help families in terms of arranging childcare. Excessive working hours can of course put a strain on health and productivity and therefore should be discouraged.

However, reducing the number of working hours may also have repercussions on workers’ productivity. This in turns reduces competitiveness of the businesses and consequently adversely affects the economic growth.

Any consideration of the merits of introducing any form of compressed hours working, will require the parties to consider the many implications for the standard full-time week. If a person does eight hours per day, five days a week then e.g. in a 4-day working week they still work e.g. 40 hours but may do 10 hours per day for four days.

Considerations arising will include (but not limited to) the following:

  • Business needs to decide who can and cannot participate as not everyone may be permitted to work a four-day week based on business needs. Any potential equality or discrimination issues will need to be carefully considered.

  • The extra day off that would arise does not have to be a Monday or Friday so the employer may designate any day of the week for this purpose based on business needs whilst taking account of the employees’ preference.

  • If an employee is salaried and there is no liability to pay normal overtime, this will usually be easier to deal with as the person receives the same amount of pay every week, regardless of the number of hours worked or the number of days worked. If an employee is eligible for overtime pay then the implications for overtime payment and its calculation will have to be set out and in compliance with the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997. If a business is trying to do a 40-hour week in four days this could potentially see employers having to pay more overtime to their workers.

  • It may also be necessary to set out leave arrangements in terms of the number of hours leave available rather than days and so any established rules in employment contracts or the employee handbook may need to be looked at?

  • What happens in a week when a Public Holiday falls and what payment is due?

Some Advantages / Disadvantages

The advantages for an employee are obvious as they can have another day with no work and can free up time for personal use. There are also potential benefits with reduced stress for the employee, better productivity and more engaged employees. It could also be a factor in seeking to retain employees in a tight labour market and in the right circumstances has the potential to improve staff morale, retention and quality of output. Potentially, it may also be a factor contributing to less congestion in urban centres at a time when one can reasonably state that congestion and peak times over the working week is already a challenge in our urban centres. Congestion is only likely to deteriorate as the population keeps growing.

However, compressed working will not work for every business or for every employee. If customers expect to find people who are available five days a week, then an employee who is unavailable e.g. every Friday could cause problems. Some sectors are more flexible than others, particularly those which are client-based, but others, like healthcare, the media or the Gardaí, require staff to work over long periods and often at unsociable hours.

A four-day workweek can also make childcare more difficult. Many creches and after-school programs function around the idea that a parent works a more standard working day schedule. They may not currently or wish to open at 6 am or stay open until 8 pm to accommodate a parent’s unusual schedule.

People may have reduced productivity after longer working hours at work in a day or they may feel pressured to call into meetings or respond to messages on a day off.

Organisations must be able to decide what working time arrangements best suits the business and in doing so to take account of individual needs. The matter is not as straightforward as advocates for a four day week suggest and, in any circumstance, where parties may be willing to consider its possible introduction as a form of flexible working, along with considering all of the issues mentioned they would need to assess the merit of conducting a ‘pilot’ compressed working week for a period to see how it would operate in practice.

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