Will hospitality workers ever get a four-day week?

Will hospitality workers ever get a four-day week?
The UK’s first four-day week pilot was a resounding success, but is the service industry failing to catch up?

The first trial for a four-day working week in the UK came to an end last month, and it was a resounding success. A huge majority of the companies involved saw increased productivity, higher revenues and better employee retention, with 92 percent choosing to continue with the four-day week going forward. For workers, a reduction of both working days and hours had clear benefits, with the majority reporting improved mental and physical health, less stress and, of course, a better work-life balance.

Crucially, deploying a four-day week is less about cramping 40+ hours into four (long) work days and more about giving employees a meaningful reduction in working hours without loss of pay. In this sense, a real ‘gold-standard’ four-day week is equivalent to a 32-hour week. The pilot, conducted by the 4 Day Week Campaign and think tank Autonomy, didn’t place hard and fast rules on the companies willing to participate: some chose to shut up shop completely on one day per week while others alternated days off for different employees. Some seasonal businesses even annualised the four-day week, making sure that staff worked an average of 32 hours a week over a single year.

However, almost all of the companies that took part in the trial accounted for white-collar, office-based workers – the same workers who were more likely to benefit from the work from home ‘revolution’. One of the main economic benefits touted by advocates of the four-day week is that it’s likely to boost the economic activity of workers with more time on their hands, incentivising them to spend more time shopping or visiting bars and restaurants over the course of their three-day weekend. But where does that leave the workers manning those shops and bars?

Of the 46 companies who participated on the trial, listed on the 4 Day Week Campaign’s website, there is only one hospitality business and two retail businesses. However, both are completely digital. Of the 123 companies accredited by the 4 Day Week Campaign, none are part of the hospitality sector and two are retail. Again, both fully online. According to Autonomy’s Insecurity Index, those who work in customer service and sales roles are some of the most insecure in the country, thanks to low wages and zero-hour contracts. Retail and hospitality workers are more likely to be paid by the hour, meaning that a reduction in working hours is always equivalent to a loss of pay. Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry, whether as a barista, a chef or a cashier, knows the reality of unsociable hours, long days and sore feet – surely service workers would benefit massively from a reduced-hour week, but is it likely they’re going to be left behind?

While it’s uncommon, there are some hospitality and retail companies committed to implementing a four-day week. Joe Bateman, 24, works as a chef at the Cavendish Hotel, part of the Devonshire Hotels and Restaurants chain. Around four years ago, all full-time staff at the restaurant switched to a four-day week. This, says Bateman, has been a “huge relief.”

“It’s been a massive improvement to everyone’s lives, especially the kitchen staff,” he tells Huck. Staff are contracted to work 40 hours over four days and, while this isn’t the gold-standard 32-hour week, it’s common for chef’s to work up to 60 hours a week, so that’s still a decent reduction in working hours. “The best thing about it is having a full day to recover, then you can spend your other two days off actually doing things,” says Bateman. He adds that work has become less of a chore since the four-day week was implemented: “You're just there to enjoy your job, and it really is as simple as just doing one less day,” he says.

Elyssa, 19, works as a member of the floor staff at the Black Horse pub in Leicester. The Black Horse implemented a four-day week for full-time staff in 2020, although the majority of the floor staff work part-time. As a part-time worker, Elyssa mostly works a four-day week. “It's not set shifts, just because it depends on how busy the pub is and what they've got on,” she says. This means that, if it’s going to be busy, she sometimes works five or six days a week. Elyssa, who lives at home with her parents, says she’s well-paid, and is able to reap the benefits of a four-day week. “You get a good work-life balance with it, but you're also getting good pay, so you still have money for the leisure side of things when you're off,” she says. Importantly, Elyssa says working a four-day week is great for her mental health. “I just can’t fault it,” she says.

Alan Merryweather, who owns the Black Horse, says that all of his full-time staff are paid the real living wage while his younger staff members are paid at least £10 an hour – unusually high wages for the hospitality sector. He tells Huck that hourly rates were not increased when staff moved to a four day week “because they’ve always been paid over the standard,” and that the majority of staff work 35 to 40 hours in the space of four days.

“If you give half of the team better working conditions for better pay, the other half of the team is going to feel like they aren’t worth investing in."

Mary O’Neill, 25, restaurant worker

While it’s clear that workers are happy with their respective four-day weeks, it seems that these industries are failing to adhere to the 4 Day Week Campaign’s ‘gold-standard’ four-day week. Because Elyssa is paid by the hour, her pay fluctuates depending on the number of shifts she gets per week, which means that her four-day week does inherently come with a loss of pay compared to if she were to work a five-day week. This may be why retail businesses are struggling to implement a four-day week for all staff. Last year, a number of large companies introduced four-day weeks for corporate, office-based staff and management but not their non-management shop floor workers, effectively creating a two-tier workforce.

For Mary O’Neill, 25, a server in a busy restaurant in London, this type of policy would not only be unfair, but it would also cause cultural issues in a workplace. “If you give half of the team better working conditions for better pay, the other half of the team is going to feel like they aren’t worth investing in, that upper management doesn’t care about them and that they’re disposable,” she tells Huck. “But I also think it would cause deeper issues in that it would cause a divide between floor staff and middle-level management, like supervisors, who act as a bridge between floor staff and upper management and owners.” She says that supervisors on a four-day week may be less inclined to “fight for” the needs of the floor staff if they feel that management has their best interests at heart, regardless of how floor staff are treated.

On top of this, Mary worries that the four-day week could be used to incentivise people to progress to more senior roles in a workplace. “The whole point of implementing a four-day week is that it’s supposed to be better for workers, and better working conditions shouldn’t be used as leverage against workers to incentivise them to progress in the company.” Essentially, just because floor staff aren’t salaried, it doesn’t mean they should lose out on better conditions.

To combat this, says Joe Ryle, director of the 4 Day Week Campaign, companies should raise their hourly rate “if they can afford it.” However, if they can’t, he says that companies should change the way they pay staff, “moving away from billable hours.” Essentially, he says, it’s about adjusting the way companies do business to fit the four-day week, not the other way around.

Even salaried service workers are often expected to condense their hours into four days, working longer days over all. Ryle says that there's got to be a reduction in hours because you're compressing the same amount of this is likely to leave staff worse off than before. “Compressing the same amount of hours into four days, in many cases, is going to exacerbate the problems of burnout, stress and overwhelm,” he says. However, he says that a compressed working week can be seen as a “stepping stone” towards a true four-day week.

Bateman agrees. “I don't think we should see it as a bad thing at the moment, because it is a new thing. And we are still trying to work it out ourselves,” he says. “But I think you should be seen as just a stepping stone to something that will be a lot better in the future.” This will likely come in the form of more staff. Over time, the Cavendish has employed more staff, helping chefs to work less hours. This isn’t just good for the workers, as Batemen notes, “it’s good for the industry,” which is currently feeling the pressure of a years-long recruitment and retention crisis.

For now, Ryle says the service industry will have to get “creative” when it comes to implementing a four-day week but, eventually, he thinks government subsidies to help with any additional costs will be the key to making the transition. “There's got to be a way of including [service workers] in and the four-day week,” he says. “If we're talking about the economy officially transitioning to a four-day working week, there may be a case for government support, particularly in the transition phase, for companies in the service industries.”

Ultimately, he’s hopeful, but it’s clear things aren’t going to change overnight. “If you look at the companies that have done it so far, across a variety of different sectors of the economy, there’s a real mix,” he says. “There may be some industries where it is slightly easier to implement, and there’s certainly going to be bigger hurdles in some sectors, so we do think that this needs to be led by industry leaders, business leaders, working alongside trade unions, and support from the government.”

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