Australia

Australian bosses urged to consider four-day week after Jacinda Ardern floated the idea

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently flagged the idea of a four-day working week. Source: AAP

The four-day working week is not a new idea, but could the disruption caused by coronavirus shutdowns finally make it more attractive to employers?

Australian employers are being urged to consider the benefits of a four-day working week after the idea was floated by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Ms Ardern recently flagged the idea of a four-day work week as one way to help the country's tourism industry rebuild after the coronavirus crisis.

Among ideas suggested, Ms Ardern said, was a four-day work week and greater flexibility around leave.

The four-day week could help employers keep staff on as the unemployment rate spikes during the coronavirus pandemic.
The four-day week could help employers keep staff on as the unemployment rate spikes during the coronavirus pandemic.
AAP

Sydney employment lawyer Danny King said the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis could smooth the way towards drastically-different working arrangements.

“Working through this particular period has given us a lot of perspective. I think more and more flexibility will be offered,” Ms King told SBS News.

Earlier this month Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed almost 600,000 Australians lost their jobs in April, while Treasury believes Australia's unemployment rate is close to 10 per cent.

Emma Dawson, executive director of the Per Capita think-tank, agreed it was “absolutely” the time to talk about a four-day week.

“The unemployment rate is on the up and when we get out of the crisis we will see a significant reduction in hours available across the board," she told SBS News

“The eight-hour day wasn’t won without a fight. The four-day week won’t be either.”

Ms Dawson said the concept could have payoffs for both productivity and gender equality. 

“There’s been some evidence from a major company in New Zealand that moving to a four-day week can have great outcomes for productivity and the wellbeing of employees,” she said.

“The really attractive thing is the opportunity it gives for men and women to share the unpaid work that goes on outside of the office. At the moment Australian women do most of that unpaid work.”

The idea could work by squeezing a typical 38-hour week into just four days, or maintaining the same eight-hour day and cutting staff pay by 20 per cent.

Some employers have been reluctant to embrace the idea, with the Australian Industry Group saying it could be damaging for employment and productivity.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said it is heartbreaking to see so many Australians out of work.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said it is heartbreaking to see so many Australians out of work.
AAP

Ms Dawson said the four-day working week would not suit all businesses and needed to be negotiated between staff and employers rather than mandated by government.

“There's always a reluctance on the part of employers,” she said.

“What we need is for employers to recognise it’s for their benefit. You get the same productive output, a significant decline in the use of sick days and improved wellbeing.”

Finland's leader Sanna Marin drew headlines after discussing the benefits of the four-day working week last year before becoming Prime Minister.

"A four-day work week, a six-hour work day, why couldn’t that be the next step?" she said at the time.

"I think people deserve more time with their families, hobbies, life."

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin earlier this year voiced her support for the four-day week.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin earlier this year voiced her support for the four-day week.
AAP

Ms King said the hurdles in Australia seemed to be political rather than legal.

“Subject to there being safety issues about the maximum length of time you can work, I can’t see why we can’t – theoretically – shift all of those 38 hours into four days,” she said.

“It could also be a pro-rata reduction, where you would work 20 per cent less.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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