Why you shouldn’t laugh at the idea of a four-day working week

Fundamentally altering the way our society has worked for more than 200 years means being truly prepared to embrace change and brave enough to be bold.


Purple 10 Jan 2020
3 mins
Four-day working week

It’s no surprise that recent stories about Finland potentially contemplating a switch to a four-day working week gained some significant traction on social media.

Working hours are one of those topics that tend to trigger instant emotional reactions. In this case, they probably ranged from “where do I sign up?” and “how do I move to Finland?”, to “that’s ridiculous”, with “that’s too good to be true” sitting somewhere in between.

Ultimately, the latter proved to be the case. Finland’s 34-year-old Prime Minister Sanna Marin had openly discussed the issue in August, but it was during a panel debate at a Social Democratic Party 120th anniversary function, while she was still the country’s transport minister. The Finnish Government subsequently confirmed that there hadn’t been “any recent activity” around the topic.

But that doesn’t mean you should laugh at the idea of a four-day working week. Nor should you ignore the significant work Finland has already undertaken to empower flexibility in its workforce and the impact this has had on equality in the country.

Way back in 1996 Finland instituted the Working Hours Act, which gave most workers the right to adjust typical daily working hours by starting or finishing up to three hours earlier or later. As of this year, that legislation has been beefed up even further, with the majority of full-time workers now empowered to decide when and where they work half their total working hours.

The Finnish capital, Helsinki, was last year identified as the best city in the world for work-life balance, while the country itself ranked third in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap report, leading all countries in educational attainment by women and finishing top-10 in political empowerment and wage equality.

Maybe there’s something in the Nordic water because neighbouring Sweden, Denmark and Norway are all seen as world leaders in providing parental leave to help promote workplace equality.

Sweden first introduced parental leave for both men and women in 1974. In the 45 years since, the Swedish system has grown to 480 paid days of parental leave per child split across both parents, while employees have the legal right to take days off to look after sick children – with the state reimbursing them 80 per cent of any salary lost.

With three months of Swedish parental leave for each parent falling under the “use it or lose it” category, it’s no surprise the rate of employment for women with at least one child under 14 is more than 80 per cent.

It’s a similar story for Norway (49 weeks of paid parental leave per child), where it’s estimated 90 per cent of dads take advantage of parental leave, and Denmark (56 weeks of paid parental leave and generous state-subsidised childcare), where close to 85 per cent of mothers return to the workplace.

There is no doubt we’re getting better at providing more flexible workplaces in Australia, but it’s equally doubtless that we’ve got a long way to go to catch up to some other countries.

At Purple, our journey towards true flexibility started more than a decade ago. The first steps were relatively small ones but now, on any given day, we have staff doing school drop-offs in the morning before they come into the office and leaving early for school pick-ups and then finishing their hours at home. Our staff’s children are welcome in the office and our team members are able to work from home in consultation with their teams.

In 2019 we introduced the options of 11-month contracts and nine-day working fortnights and a number of staff are now enjoying the flexibility offered by these arrangements. It’s important to note that these options have been made available to all staff, not just parents.

We don’t have any plans to introduce a four-day working week but experience (and evidence) tells us that we shouldn’t just dismiss different or unusual ideas either. Fundamentally altering the way our society has worked for more than 200 years means being truly prepared to embrace change and brave enough to be bold.

Finland’s unemployment rate was more than 16 per cent at the start of 1996, before the Working Hours Act kicked in. At the start of this year, that figure was less than 6 per cent, with economic productivity increasing by nearly 55 per cent during the same period.

Finland economic productivity, source: tradingeconomics.com

Flexible work won’t be the only factor in achieving these results. But happy workers, able to tailor their working patterns to their lifestyles and family commitments, certainly couldn’t have hurt.

Charlie Wilson-Clark is Purple’s wellness officer and Director of our Stakeholder Engagement team. Contact Charlie.

More Purple news: