Is the four-day working week likely to take off in Central and Eastern Europe?

Is the four-day working week likely to take off in Central and Eastern Europe?

26. 04. 2023 – Lomond

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the idea of a four-day working week, particularly following the recent UK pilot project in which it was trialled in more than 60 companies across a range of different sectors. More than 90% of the participating businesses opted to continue with the four-day week after the trial period came to an end, with 18 having already adopted it permanently.

That pilot was based on the ‘100-80-100 model’: so workers received 100% pay for working 80% of their previous hours in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100% productivity. The main improvement was seen in staff retention and well-being –  there was a 65% reduction in the number of sick days and 71% of employees reported lower levels of burnout – while productivity levels were apparently maintained.

There is therefore some momentum behind this idea, and not just in the UK. To give two other examples, Belgium last year introduced legislation enabling a four-day working week for employees who want it, and Spain launched a pilot project in December to help SMEs cut their working week by at least half a day without reducing salaries, to test the impact on productivity.

Will the four-day week concept catch on in Central & Eastern Europe?

Some people are predicting that the four-day week will prove popular (and successful) in CEE, partly because there are companies in the region that have already adopted it – and have been getting some media attention for the positive results they experienced. Indeed, the fact that unemployment rates are so low across most of this region should, you would think, make CEE fertile ground for the four-day working week because all of the pilot projects that have tested it suggest that employees like it, and that it therefore helps employers recruit and retain staff.

However, there are a few characteristics of the labour market in CEE which are likely to stand in the way of a widespread transition to the four-day week:

  1. CEE is a heavily industrialised region

We have discussed this before, but there is a lot of industry in CEE: of the 10 EU member states where industry accounts for the highest share of total gross value added (GVA), eight are in this region. Not all of the employees in these companies are on production lines, of course, but a four-day working week would still be tough to offer in an operation based on a tightly planned shift patterns.

  1. People in CEE currently work longer hours than their counterparts in Western Europe

When it comes to working hours, the regional discrepancies within Europe are nowhere near as extreme as they are, say, between Europe and parts of Asia (where, for example, the South Korean government recently had to backtrack on a proposal to increase the maximum weekly working hours from 52 to 69 hours). In the EU, the average number of hours of work in people’s main job ranges from 31.7 hours per week in the Netherlands to 41 hours in Greece, but there are eight CEE member states in the 10 countries where people are working more than 39.5 hours per week on average in their main job:

The difference in working hours may not be huge, but it is still a much easier proposition to introduce a four-day week in a country where people are, on average, working around 32 hours per week than in one where they are working 40.

  1. Work absences are less of a problem in CEE

This is perhaps a minor consideration, but, as mentioned, proponents of the four-day week argue that it has a positive impact on reducing sick days and burnout. Most of the available evidence on absences from work is from just before Covid, so things may have changed, but it indicates that workplace absences are slightly less of a problem in most of CEE than in much of Western Europe – so it is less likely to be a driver of change in this region.

  1. Productivity levels are yet to catch up with Western Europe

Some campaigners, including the Four Day a Week Campaign in the UK, argue that a four-day working week can actually improve productivity, and the impact on productivity is probably the key battleground on this issue.

First things first, how do you measure productivity? The European Commission measures it based on GDP per person employed and hour worked in relation to the EU average, with the EU average set at 100 (so if the index of a country is higher than 100, its level of GDP per person employed is higher than the EU average and vice versa).

Based on that definition of productivity, it’s worth looking at how the CEE member states currently compare with the rest of Europe in this area – and the truth is that, while labour productivity has improved in every CEE country since EU accession (in some cases very substantially), none have yet reached the EU average:

Productivity therefore remains a challenge across this entire region, and concerns that a four-day week might slow progress towards parity with Western Europe is probably another obstacle in its path in CEE.

However, there is almost certainly a fifth obstacle too, which is potentially even more important: workplace culture.

Before Christmas, we considered the reasons behind the low work-from-home rates in CEE and concluded that there were probably cultural factors at play, with employers perhaps slightly more conservative than their counterparts in Western Europe. If that was right in the context of working from home, then it will probably also be true that the four-day working week will take a bit longer to catch on in this region than it will in parts of Western Europe.

But we’re all guessing at this point. Time will tell…