A biblical argument for the 4-day work week

Last week, the Spanish socialist government announced its intention to trial a 4-day working week. The trial is to improve work–life balance. It is a move that has been discussed and endorsed by New Zealand, Japan and Sweden in recent years.

Importantly, the trial is not about fitting five days of work into four, as some have advocated. It is a 32-hour week which has been approved by the Spanish government, with employees paid the same amount as a 40-hour week.

So, why is there a growing momentum toward a longer weekend?

Peer-reviewed research shows that workers can be more productive in 30 hours than in 40

In an article in The Conversation, Karen Foster explains that the Pandemic has increased the interest: “families are struggling to cover child care in the absence of day cares and schools; workplaces are trying to reduce the number of employees congregating in offices each day; and millions of people have lost their jobs.”

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern advocated the idea last year as a way of boosting productivity and domestic tourism, as well as improving work–life balance in the wake of the pandemic.

It is an idea that organisations are keen for also, as peer-reviewed research shows that workers can be more productive in 30 hours than in 40, and there is (predictably) increased employee satisfaction. The productivity improvement is due to reduced sick days, less staff turnover, and increased wellbeing.

However, the same report said there were still issues, including: “regulations regarding work contracts, and the associated bureaucracy to implement the four-day week, as well as challenges around staffing.” In addition, it instantly increases the cost of labour, with the per hour rate going up 25%.

Bloomberg Business reported earlier this month that organisations are favouring a shorter working week: “Although many CEOs resist the idea of cutting hours without reducing pay, two-thirds of companies that have adopted a four-day week say employee productivity has increased.”

The article said, “A group led by former U.K. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell wrote a letter to leaders including Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, and Angela Merkel urging them to adopt a four-day week to save jobs, rethink working patterns, and reduce energy consumption.”

How do we evaluate this as Christians?

This trial is an excellent opportunity for us to practise some theological reflection on issues of work. One way is to look through the prism of a gospel outline of work.

Acknowledge the good of work

In Genesis 1–2 we see work is presented as good, pre-fall (1:26–28, 2:15–20a). We are made in the image of a God who works, and it is intrinsic to who we were created to be.

God is interested in all our work: paid or unpaid. Thus, a 4-day paid working week is good, because it has the potential to free us up for important unpaid work such as caring responsibilities.

It could be that the 4-day week is a gift from God to increase righteousness

This move may also enable a greater sharing of the good of work, by those unable to access paid work at present. It may free up resources, or increase opportunity for more workers to be employed.

Acknowledge the fall of work

However, Genesis 3:17–19 reveals that work has been impacted by the fall, and so is tainted by sin. We see the impact of sin in overwork, not enough work, and struggles affecting our work.

In combating such impacts, a 4-day week may enable more purposeful and effective working, and greater rest between paid work.

However, it may also upset the balance of power between organisations and employees. We need to analyse carefully whether this is primarily a good for organisations. Could it lead to greater exploitation of employees?

Acknowledge that work can be redeemed

Colossians 1:15–20 tells us that Jesus is sovereign over all things, and has given us the responsibility of being agents of reconciliation of all things (2 Corinthians 5:16–21), to promote good and hold back evil.

It could be that the 4-day week is a gift from God to increase righteousness by reducing the burdens of work, increasing the availability of work for others, improving the dignity of workers, allowing greater access for women who carry an imbalance of caring duties, allowing for more choice and flexibility, and improving access for those suffering from a mental or physical disability (because of reduced demands).

One of my biggest issues with the Spanish proposal is the motivation, allegedly to improve work–life balance. I do not think work–life balance is a biblical concept. It comes from a misunderstanding of work: as somehow separate from life; and as something which is a negative balance to the good of life.

It also suggests that work–life balance is something that can be achieved. Balance is virtually impossible with the demands of all of life.

In contrast, we see in Genesis 2:1–3 a work–rest rhythm instituted by God. This was introduced, Jesus tells us in Mark 2:27, for our sake. Work–life balance is a false hope, but a work–rest rhythm holds the promise of the New Creation (Hebrews 4:9–11).

Kara Martin is the author of Workship: How to Use your Work to Worship God, and Workship 2: How to Flourish at Work. She is a lecturer with Alphacrucis College. She is also on the Advisory Board for the Global Lausanne Movement Workplace Ministry and on the Board of the Karam Fellowship. Kara has worked in media and communications, human resources, business analysis and policy development roles, in a variety of organisations, and as a consultant. She is researching the variables for effective faith–work integration for workplace Christians.