Our statement in reaction to Wellcome Trust's decision not to pursue a 4 day week trial, 

May 2019

We were disappointed to hear that the Wellcome Trust abandoned its plans to trial a 4 day week. A reduction of working hours implemented at such a large and prestigious organisation would provide an inspiring example to other companies looking to make a change, and we believe they’ve missed an opportunity to create a happier, healthier and fairer workplace.


We are pleased that the Wellcome Trust’s decision has not put off other employers. Recently, Simply Business, a call centre in Northampton employing hundreds of people, announced that they will be trialling a 4 day week, adding to the growing number of organisations that see the potential in the idea. It’s clear that our demand to work less and enjoy life more is here to stay.


But it’s also important to understand why the Wellcome Trust’s trial was abandoned, and what we can learn from that decision. In preparing for the trial, the Wellcome Trust found that although many staff could reduce their work without it affecting their output, some couldn’t and they didn’t want to create this unfairness within the organisation. We of course believe they were right not to create a two-tier employment system, but we also think there were other options available to them.  


Research shows that more and more people believe they could get their work done in a shorter number of hours than they are currently given. However there are some jobs - security guards, receptionists, nurses, waiters - that just can’t be condensed in this way.  In campaigning for a 4 day week we do run the risk that some jobs, such as managerial positions and creative roles, achieve a 4 day week, and jobs that can’t be condensed continue to work a 5 day week.


Fortunately there is a simple solution to this problem: employ more. According to ONS figures, 1 in 10 UK employees would like to work less, and nearly 1 in 10 would like to work more. A 4 day week would address this imbalance and redistribute available work amongst the population.


That said, simple is not the same as easy. For a large and complex organisation like the Wellcome Trust, it requires some reorganisation and a leap of faith. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the right thing to do. And whilst for most jobs, a shorter working week will not result in a less productive workplace, productivity cannot and should not be the only metric by which we measure the benefits of the 4 day week. If our aim is to achieve a jobs market that is fair for all, that does not force workers to choose between their work and the health,  profits and productivity cannot be the only goals.


It is already Labour party policy to add four new bank holidays, and a recent Autonomy report recommended an extra two on top as a transitional step towards a 4 day week throughout the year. Over the Easter period we had two 4 day weeks in a row and the economy didn’t crash to a halt. Rather, companies planned their resources accordingly, customers and clients adapted their expectations, and business ticked over fine.


A further recommendation by Autonomy is that government organisations are ideally placed to lead the way in making this transition. Government organisations don’t have the same pressure to make a profit or risk failure, they can afford to take the brave steps required and show others how it can be done.  


It’s important that these changes are pursued from the bottom-up as well as the top-down, and it’s here that trade unions can play a vital role in the transition to a shorter working week. They fought hard battles for the 8 hour day, the 5 day week and holiday pay, and are best positioned to amplify the concerns of workers and ensure that the 4 day week benefits everyone.


For our mental and physical health, for economic equality, for gender equality, for our environment and for our happiness, we need to rethink our approach to work. The Wellcome Trust’s decision to cancel its plans for a 4 day week does not show that it’s a bad idea, it shows that greater thought and support is needed to implement a good idea.