/ 21 October 2022

Should South Africa experiment with a four-day work week?

South Africa has many favourable conditions for piloting and innovating new forms of working time, including creative and resilient managers and employees who are up for a challenge, as well as challenges that can be addressed with a four-day work week — a new way of working. 

Indeed, it should be a source of pride that South Africa is the first emerging economy, and the first African country, to be part of this worldwide experiment pioneered by 4 Day Week Global.

However, while a four-day week experiment will likely bring some of the benefits that have been seen elsewhere in the world, it may bring additional and unintended consequences.

The four-day week being piloted in several countries around the world is not a compressed working week or a “4/10” (foour ten-hour days) in which individuals work fewer, but longer, days. 

It is also not part-time work where individuals work less and are paid less. 

This is working a “4/8” – four normal, eight-hour days, at the same salary and, most importantly, continuing to do 100% of the work. 

In this sense, it could mean a much-needed boost to productivity where organisations deliver the same product and/or service in 20% less time. Employees benefit from more downtime and less commuting and, it is anticipated, will perhaps give less attention to redundant activities in the workplace.

Early indicators from pilots around the world show evidence of a boost to employee well-being and engagement with the organisation. A four day-week may also be a point of attraction for recruitment and retention. And the productivity gains for the organisation mean that individual employees are being more efficient and effective. 

There is no reason to think that South Africans and their organisations should not benefit in the same way. 

The South African context

While South Africans could benefit from experimentation with a four-day week – just as employees in European, Antipodean and North American countries are – there may be other considerations in our context. 

The results of the research project accompanying the South African pilot, led by Stellenbosch Business School, will not necessarily be the same as in other countries. Although there is a commonality in the widespread positive results already seen, there is also the potential for diversity in outcomes across countries.

In South Africa, we might expect a few more differences resulting from the particularities of an emerging economy, extreme levels of inequality, and a tightly regulated labour market. For example, regulations in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act could hamper the inclusion of the lowest-paid workers (earning less than R224 080/year). 

Inequalities in income could lead to further inequalities in workplace innovation and limit the reach of potential positive outcomes.

Furthermore, increased leisure time associated with the four-day week may have different outcomes in South Africa. 

Proponents of the four-day week expect that increased leisure time will be used for positive activities such as learning, family time, volunteering and community work. The research has found this in other nations and this is also likely to be the case in South Africa, for some. 

In an emerging economy, however, more free time from a primary job could increase “double jobbing”, as low-paid workers with an additional day off take up gig work such as Uber driving or part-time work for another employer. Similarly, those with side hustles, as many in South Africa have, may be more likely to expand this activity. 

These side effects may be positive for the economy but may also crowd out others for whom this type of work is their main economic activity and source of income.

South Africa has social problems, like all countries, and more than its fair share. Increased leisure time could also lead to increased time for undesirable activities and anti social behaviours. The pandemic lockdown saw an increase in domestic violence and substance abuse and, if not for the ban on alcohol sales, perhaps even greater levels of alcoholism. 

Increased time away from work holds potential risks for those with existing substance abuse problems, those living in poverty or cramped conditions, and those living in unsafe environments.

Are these reasons not to participate in the four-day week experiment in South Africa? No, of course not. 

South Africans deserve to see if the benefits observed elsewhere in the world are realisable in this country. The juxtaposition of the modernity of South Africa with poverty, low productivity and inequality means that it is important to explore the impact of such innovations. It is also perhaps an opportunity to boost productivity for both experimenters and others in the economy. 

The responsible approach is for the Stellenbosch researchers and other stakeholders in these experiments to consider the potential unintended consequences and address them. That way, the potential benefits of working-time innovations can be shared for all but also balanced with an awareness of their full societal impact.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.