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Where does the 5-day working week come from?

by Courtney-Jade Herrington

27th January 2022

When it comes to working full time, it’s standard procedure that most people operate on a 5 day on, 2 day off basis. The 5 days are devoted to working and the other 2 to rest, totalling to the 7 day week as we know it.

For many, the 5 working days fall from Monday through to Friday, with Saturday and Sunday constituting as the weekend. However, this isn’t the case for everyone, as those who work in retail, factories, for the NHS and various other roles, find themselves working over weekends and taking their days off in the week.

But no matter how days off fall, most full time roles generally operate on 5 days on and 2 days off, per week. Yet this hasn’t always been how the world approached working.

Working times throughout history

The working week has changed drastically over the past 3 million years...

  • Hunter-gatherer (finding and catching everything they ate) in Stone Age Europe (3.3 million years ago): three to five hours a day, every day of the year.

  • Labourer in imperial Rome (27BC to 476 AD): six hours a day, working every day for half of the year and having the other half off.

  • Labourer in the 14th-century Aztec Empire: nine hours a day, 4 days per week.

  • Labourer in 17th-century: 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. However, they were entitled to 90 rest days per year and 39 religious holidays, so only ended up working 185 days (half) the year.

  • Unskilled worker in mid 18th-century: 11 hours a day, 4 days a week. They were also entitled to 53 holy holidays a year.

  • Factory worker in mid 19th-century: 16 hours a day, six days a week. This changed from the previous century, as the 19th century welcomed the industrial revolution.

(Information from lovemoney.com )

Where did the 5 day working week come from and when was it adopted?

The first 5 day working week was introduced in 1908 in the United States and was enforced by a New England cotton mill so that Jewish workers would not have to work on the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

In 1926, Henry Ford (creator of Ford cars) began shutting down his automotive factories for all of the weekend, with his staff working 8 hours a day Monday to Friday. This was cut from 6 days, after Ford noticed productivity increased when his employees worked 5 days a week rather than 6.

Henry Ford was a prominent business man, which lead to people closely following what he did. This resulted in the 5 day week being adopted by companies across the world, with Ford setting off a domino effect of how we approach modern day working.

Has it changed since?

We have followed Ford’s work module for almost 100 years, but are now beginning to see a shift in this, with the 4 day working week becoming increasingly popular.

Japan is one of the major nations to implement a 4 day working week. In 2021, the Japanese government unveiled its annual economic policy guidelines, which included new recommendations that companies permit their staff to opt to work four days a week instead of the typical five.

Iceland conducted several large-scale trials of the 4 day week between 2015 and 2019. Researchers said it showed “ground-breaking evidence for the efficacy of working time reduction”. The trials' key findings showed that a shorter week translated to increased well-being of employees among a range of indicators, from stress and burnout to health and work-life balance.

In New Zealand, Perpetual Guardian announced in February 2018 that it would begin trailing a 4 day work week. The six-week trial, initiated by founder Andrew Barnes, saw the company's 240-plus staff nominating a day off each week whilst still receiving full pay. The trial found that 78% of employees with 4 day work weeks are happier and less stressed.

Now, in 2022, the UK is carrying out a 6 month trial for a 4 day working week, to measure whether employees are more productive with longer weekends. Around 30 UK companies are taking part in a six-month trial of a 4 day week, where employees will be paid the same amount as if they were working their usual 5 days. The aim is to measure any changes to productivity and employee well-being during this time.

What does the future hold for the 5 day working week?

The pandemic created a fundamental shift in how we approach working as a whole. Hybrid working, which is a mix of staff working in the office and from home, became increasingly popular. Hybrid communications also took centre stage, offering staff the ability to send a variety of traditional communications, such as post, directly from their computer. And now, studies for a hybrid 4-day week are being accelerated.

We are continually improving and adapting to make work more enjoyable for employees, whilst also making them more efficient and productive in their roles. This way of approaching work isn’t new, as history has proven that we continually change how many days a week we work and how many hours, to suit the world’s needs at that time.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that we are beginning to head towards a 4 day week working week.

Want to find out more about hybrid communications and how they took centre stage for hybrid workers in 2021? Read our blog: Hybrid communications for hybrid workers

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