Four-day workweek debate is gaining momentum
The debate over a four-day workweek is gaining traction in Germany. Following pilot projects in the UK, the personnel consulting firm Intraprenör is now seeking German companies willing to test this work hour model for six months. Just last week, IG Metall, a major German trade union, proposed a four-day workweek with full pay for steelworkers. While the introduction of the long-awaited four-day workweek might make sense in some industries, there are also disadvantages.
Since the industrial revolution, working hours in Germany have steadily decreased. According to the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), Germans worked an average of 72 hours per week in 1871. In 2022, it was down to just 40 hours per week for full-time employees. Concurrently, productivity has steadily increased over the decades, although the growth has been slower in recent years. This is where one of the proponents' arguments comes into play: the four-day workweek contributes to boosting productivity. It is one of the findings of a study conducted by Intraprenör in the UK. Similar studies in Australia and the US have produced comparable results. Moreover, employees are more satisfied, motivated, and, most importantly, they are absent less frequently. In the UK, the consulting firm notes a 65% reduction in absenteeism.
A push for gender equality
Reduced weekly working hours also simplify childcare. With a shortened workweek, employees can spend more time caring for their children, resulting in cost savings on childcare. In the UK, where childcare costs account for nearly 52% of women's median income, a significant potential for relief exists. Similarly, gender equality could receive a boost in Germany as well. While childcare costs, according to the OECD, are below 5% of the female median income, daycare spots are in short supply. In 2020, 49% of parents with children under the age of three stated in a study that they needed daycare, but only 24% were able to secure enough childcare hours.
To alleviate the shortage of skilled workers, labor market policymakers in Germany frequently stress the need to tap into the reserve of part-time workers. Immigration alone will not cover the demand for labor. Reduced weekly working hours with full wage compensation would be a relief for parents in particular. If all women with children under six were able to work as much as they wanted, there would be 840,000 more workers, according to Federal Family Minister Lisa Paus. In addition to higher productivity, this would also be an argument in favor of the four-day week – even from a company's point of view.
IG Metall withdraws demand
While the short-term effects seem promising, many legitimate questions arise regarding the long-term implications. It's possible, for instance, that a habituation effect occurs and productivity declines again after a longer period as existing studies have been limited to a six-month timeframe so far. Furthermore, if the shortened workweek were to apply to all industries, the skilled labor shortage could worsen. The childcare sector, for example, is already experiencing a shortage of thousands of educators. Implementing the four-day workweek in other sectors with high staffing needs, such as healthcare and education, could further prove to be challenging.
Doubts also need to be addressed for the manufacturing sector. While the trade union IG Metall is demanding a 32-hour workweek with full pay for steelworkers, union leader Jörg Hofmann recently stated in an interview that the focus in the 2024 wage negotiations for the 3.9 million employees in the metal and electrical industries should be on higher wages, not shorter working hours.