Four-day working week trial run in South Africa

We have written previously about the concept of the four-day work week and its relevance to the South African context (you can read our previous alerts here and here).

4 Dec 2023 3 min read Employment Law Alert Article

At a glance

  • The results of the first South African four-day work week trial took place over a period of six months from March to August this year.
  • The results show an overall positive impact for both employers and employees.
  • However, none of the companies that participated in the trial are Johannesburg Stock Exchange listed companies and the majority are not large-scale employers. This means that the efficacy of a four-day work week in many major local industries remains uncertain. 

The first South African four-day work week trial took place over a period of six months from March to August this year. The trial was conducted by 4 Day Week Global – an international non-profit organisation that aims to promote a working environment that is focused on retaining productivity while reducing the focus on time. This is the first trial of its kind in a country that is designated as part of the developing world.

In South Africa, the research team was led by Prof. Mark Smith (Stellenbosch Business School) and Prof. Juliet Schor (Boston College, USA) and the results were recently published. Twenty-seven companies participated in the trial (and a further one company in Botswana). However, two companies stopped with the trial during the testing period. These employers primarily employed under 100 people with one company employing more than 101 employees. The majority were in the professional services sector with others in marketing, IT, finance, healthcare, recruitment, social services and consulting. The majority of companies were based in the Western Cape and Gauteng (78%), while 19% were based in KwaZulu-Natal and 3% in the North-West. From the trial group, 50% of employees and businesses operated on a hybrid model, while about 30% operated completely remotely with only 19% of employees physically at their employer’s premises on a full-time basis. South African employers were more flexible and creative in identifying the particular work days compared to other country trials. The majority made provision for employees to choose the days or times that were most suitable for them, while not compromising on the interests of the employers. Some employers provided an option of a Monday or Friday or a Wednesday or Friday, while others settled on a Friday.

Commercial and well-being impact

The results demonstrated an overall positive impact on the employers (productivity and performance) and employees (reduction in burnout, reduction in fatigue, more time spent exercising, increase in work-life balance, increase in satisfaction with time, and increase in mental health well-being). To some extent, an increase in life satisfaction and a decrease in work stress were also recorded. There was minimal impact in relation to travel time and other environmental factors. Of the employers in the trial, 94% indicated that either they intend continuing with a four-day work week or are considering implementing it on a long-term basis.

It is important to recognise that there is a clear absence of businesses from other sectors such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing, which together constitute some of the largest employers in South Africa. The efficacy of a four-day work week in these industries is uncertain. In these sectors, working hours also tend to be highly regulated by way of main collective agreements and sectoral determinations with salaries at times directly linked to hours worked. Furthermore, the long-term effect of a four-day week in the workplace and the impact on company culture is difficult to predict at this early stage.

It is also notable that none of the companies that participated in the trial are Johannesburg Stock Exchange listed companies and the majority are not large-scale employers. For a holistic perspective on the applicability of the four-day work week, the assessment in a previous article bears mentioning again:

According to the Department [of Employment and Labour], particular focus needs to be placed on sectors that are earning minimum wage. In addition to this, the reduction of working hours already forms part of the proposals under discussion at the National Economic Development and Labour Council’s Labour Law Reform Task Team, with the Congress of South African Trade Unions having tabled a 40-hour working week for discussion as early as 3 March 2021

The challenge of such a model lies largely in its potential implementation, and potential amendments to the Wage Bill, more so in highly unionised environments where negotiations on basic conditions of employment are particularly complex. Notwithstanding, the topic of reduced hours of work, without loss of pay, may easily find its way to the tables of collective bargaining, which may radically alter the labour space for a time.”

To access the report, click here.

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