Is the four day week a reality for Australia?

Photo of a busy city
Chris Sheedy By Chris Sheedy, CA Today

25 May 2017

When Greens leader Richard Di Natale opened a conversation around a four-day working week, he wasn’t laughed out of the room. Could a shorter period in the office become a reality?

As he presented the idea of a four-day working week to media at the National Press Club in Canberra recently, Greens leader Richard Di Natale brought up the fact that one in four Australians want to work less.

This is perhaps unsurprising. In fact, one would expect that more than 25 per cent of Australians would like to spend less time at the office. Whether people enjoy their work or not, less working hours would clearly add to greater happiness and a more positive life balance.

It's a conversation that has to involve the business community, the unions, workers...

What was surprising was the support for the idea. Typically, such a radical suggestion is shot down in flames, but this one was recognised by the gathered media as a potential solution to several larger issues.

"A four-day work week or a six-hour day might actually make us happier and create more opportunities for others, not to mention reducing the costs of full-time child care,” Di Natale said.

"It's a conversation that has to involve the business community, the unions, workers … We have to start it, we have to ask ourselves those questions and at the moment we're just not doing that."

What are the ingredients for happiness?

A four-day work week might help to solve Australia’s ageing population, and its effect on tax revenue. It’s no secret that the population is already top-heavy with retirees; a problem that is only going to become worse over the next several decades.

Research from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR) reveals that profound changes are on the way.

Not only are Australians living longer (there has been a 29% increase in life expectancy, at age 65, over the last three decades) but by 2050 the number of Australians over the age of 65 will have multiplied 2.5 times to 7.2 million, while numbers of working age Australians will have only multiplied 1.2 times – leaving a tiny increase in potential tax revenue to fund a massive increase in cost.

While financial security is an ingredient in the happiness recipe, the big influencers of happiness are strong relationships and physical fitness.

A four-day work week or some other similarly flexible work policy might encourage more of the retirement-age population to stay at work longer, helping to offset this issue.

Then there is the simple matter of happiness. Working harder and earning more provides some satisfaction for specific types of people.

But happiness studies, such as a 75-year longitudinal study by researchers at Harvard Medical School, say that while financial security is an ingredient in the happiness recipe, the big influencers of happiness are strong relationships and physical fitness / health.

These only come with a good work / life balance that allows enough time to develop and nurture strong relationships and to look after one’s health.

Lessons from Sweden?

Di Natale pointed to the fact that the Swedish aged care and hospital sector successfully introduced a six-hour work day to increase productivity. When they have less time at work, people will achieve more by working more efficiently, the Swedes discovered.

This fact has long been known by Toyota centres in Gothenburg, which famously switched to six hour days almost 15 years ago resulting in happier staff, decreased staff turnover and increased profits.

[The proposal could have] a devastating impact on the Australian economy.

The Greens leader did not present a policy or working paper, or give any clear directions on how he sees the four-day working week actually being managed or legislated. Instead, he said, he was simply hoping to open a conversation. In that he was successful.

The only negative reactions came, predictably, from parties that oppose the Greens in Parliament. Coalition Senator Eric Abetz, ignoring some of the evidence from overseas, said the proposal would have “a devastating impact on the Australian economy and its productive capacity”.

Liberal Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm came up with a more amusing response. “I fully support the idea of a four-day working week,” he said, “particularly when applied to Senator Di Natale.”

This article was first featured in CA Australia magazine.

About the author

Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning HeraldVirgin Australia VoyeurThe Australian MagazineGQIn The BlackCadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.


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