Spain To Try Nationwide 4-Day Workweek

A shorter workweek has been touted as a means of improving work-life balance and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Woman reading book while relaxing on deck chair
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A small Spanish political party with big ideas has pushed their country into the vanguard of the movement for a more ecologically and personally sustainable work week.

In late January, Íñigo Errejón, a representative from the new leftwing party Más País, tweeted that the government had agreed to launch a pilot project to trial a four-day workweek.

“We’ve done it!” he said.

The news made waves both within Spain and beyond. Momentum for reducing the working week to 32 hours without reducing pay has been building around the world. Microsoft Japan tested the idea in 2019 and Unilever is currently trialing it in New Zealand. The governments of Scotland and Wales are also looking into experimenting with it and the UK Labour Party added it to its platform for the general election of 2019. However, Spain is the first country in the world to actually pledge government money towards testing the idea.

“This is a huge move because it could pave the way for Spain to become the first country in the world to move toward a four-day working week,” Joe Ryle, Campaign Officer for the 4 Day Week Campaign in the UK, told Treehugger. 

The Fight for Time

The four-day workweek is a solution to several urgent problems. Más País political coordinator Héctor Tejero said his party supported the idea for four main reasons.

  1. The Climate Crisis: Más País originally proposed a shorter workweek as part of its version of the Green New Deal. A report from the think tank Autonomy found that a four-day workweek would reduce the UK’s electricity-based greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent. This would be in addition to the reduction in transit emissions from one day less of commuting. At the same time, people who work less have more time to care for the environment.
  2. Childcare: The shuttering of schools and daycare during the pandemic while work continued made it clear that families need more support in balancing their working and home lives. 
  3. Mental Health: The pandemic also brought the issue of mental health to the forefront in Spain, when before it had been more of a private crisis. A shorter workweek would reduce stress and give people more time for self-care.
  4. Productivity: Productivity is increasing with automation, but this is currently hurting workers, who are left unemployed. Shortening the workweek is a way to share the gains of productivity with the workers.

Tejero said the argument that most resonated with Spaniards when the pilot was announced was the issue of mental health. The party began by emphasizing the measure’s climate and childcare benefits, but what people really wanted was more time. Time to rest and relax and enjoy their loved ones’ company. 

However, there is a relationship between the exploitation of the Earth and the exploitation of the workforce, and the four-day workweek movement is part of a broader push to imagine an economy that is at once more sustainable and more humane. María Álvarez, a business owner and activist who helped launch the Spanish campaign for a four-day workweek and implemented it in her own restaurants, compared it to regenerative agriculture. 

“Work extracts value from people the same way agriculture extracts value from the Earth without replenishing it,” she told Treehugger. “The four-day week is a way of replenishing or allowing the workers to replenish their value in the same way that we don’t work the fields every year.”

Tejero argued that giving people more time was also essential to democracy itself, since it made them more likely to engage politically.

“This fight for time is one of the fights of the future,” he said.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

The fact that Spain is now leading that fight is the result of shrewd political maneuvering and perfect timing. Más País had included a four-day workweek in its 2019 electoral platform and had already tried once during budget negotiations in 2020 to get the government to agree to a pilot project. At first, the government refused. However, in early 2021 Más País had the chance to push for it once again in exchange for votes on a separate issue. This time, the government agreed.  

But the four-day workweek is also an idea whose time has come. The proposal captured the public imagination both inside and outside Spain in part because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Everybody is looking for a new idea,” Álvarez told Treehugger. 

When the Spanish campaign was launched in May of 2020, Álvarez said she gave 20 interviews that week. Since the new pilot project was announced at the end of January, that has risen to several interviews a day. Journalists soliciting passersby for opinions on the issue have not been able to find anyone against it. Tejero, for his part, said he had given one or two interviews a day to international media since The Guardian reported the story in March.

Ryle said that the pandemic had spurred international interest in the idea, partly because the rapid transition to remote work upended people’s conception of the possible. 

“People have seen that actually we can change the world of work for the better and we can change it very quickly,” he said. 

The Spanish pilot is also innovative for how it will be implemented. Tejero said his party wants to run the pilot program as a “randomized control trial.” The government will issue a 50 million euro grant to facilitate companies in trying a shorter workweek. The idea is that half of the participating companies will implement the changes and half will not, allowing policymakers to determine what works and what doesn’t. 

Participating companies will be assessed based on how they perform economically, while workers will be asked to self-report on their happiness and overall health. Tejero said the party also hoped to measure the impact on emissions, though this would be more complicated to test. 

Tejero stressed that the overall design of the pilot is still in flux. Más País has only had one meeting with the Ministry of Industry so far, and Tejero said the party wanted to work with the government, trade unions, businesses, and outside experts to craft the most successful test possible. 

“We need a very careful design,” he said.

Tejero said he thought the pilot would probably be ready to launch in the fall. 

A Win-Win Situation

One Spanish business has already seen success with the idea, however. 

As Spain came out of lockdown in May of last year, Álvarez decided to try a four-day workweek at her restaurant La Francachela, which has three locations in Madrid.

“We really transformed the business entirely,” she said. 

The four-day workweek allowed the business to innovate and become more flexible. Most Spanish restaurants rely on table service, but La Francachela moved to taking orders via WhatsApp. This meant workers spent less time waiting around and allowed the business to adapt quickly when curfews altered its closing times. 

At the same time, the four-day workweek was a way for Álvarez to signal to her employees that they would share the benefits of these innovations. She said some were actually skeptical at first, as they wanted to maximize their hours and their pay. But almost a year later, many of them are using the extra time to study or pursue other projects they would not have been able to before. And the business is thriving. 

“We were actually profitable in 2020,” she said. 

La Francachella’s experience mirrors what other companies have found after trialing shorter work weeks, Ryle said. In every case he could think of, productivity had increased. Microsoft Japan saw a productivity jump of 40 percent, for example.

“It really is a win-win situation for both employer and worker,” he said.

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