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As the fifth day of a four day work week opens up, one starts to feel the weight of its infinite potential
‘I work a four-day week and today is my fifth day. The day of not-work. So, what do I do now?’ writes Celina Ribeiro. Illustration: Greedy Hen/The Guardian
‘I work a four-day week and today is my fifth day. The day of not-work. So, what do I do now?’ writes Celina Ribeiro. Illustration: Greedy Hen/The Guardian

‘Can I just … rest?’: guilt, the four-day working week and what to do with the fifth day

As support for the four-day working week grows, we wrestle with the culture of achievement and busyness, and feelings of guilt and accountability

The clatter and clamour of the morning is gone. Coffee dregs stain the base of a pair of cups. Cereal bowls are stacked in the sink. The sound of my footsteps down the hallway bounce through the house and the keys clash on the drawers like a cymbal. Everyone has gone. Off to work, off to school. Except me.

I work a four-day week and today is my fifth day. The day of not-work. So, what do I do now?

Around the world, the four-day week is inching towards grasping distance. For many, I am living the work-life balance dream. Living in some imminent utopian future in which, in return for decades of increasing productivity for relatively little increase in pay and in light of a global epidemic of stress, the four-day work week becomes the next great shift in the way we structure work and leisure. This is OK, say economists and employers, because actually productivity does not decline when workplaces shift.

And from this side of the four-day week, I report: it’s good. It really is. But it’s complicated.

Because as that fifth day opens up, one starts to feel the weight of its infinite potential and the questions start to pile up. What will you achieve on that fifth day? Can you justify non-work on a weekday? Can you stop work seeping to that day?

Or can I just … rest?

Until February, I worked a four-day week to accommodate childcare. My fifth day was work – caregiving work. I didn’t view the day as “work”, not really, but assigning it that word made it easier to explain why I was avoiding work-work on that day.

As my youngest child prepared to start school I was talking with a friend whose youngest child was starting school with my daughter. She too worked a four-day week. What, she asked, would I do with work? Without caregiving work to justify it, an additional day off felt somehow wrong. Selfish and unproductive.

Not so long ago, being able to pursue or enjoy leisure for its own sake was a marker of your elevated place in the social hierarchy. Now our busyness, the demands on our time, writes sociologist Jonathan Gershuny, has become a key signifier of social status.

Whereas in many religions periods of rest are dictated, and ancient Greek philosophers extolled leisure and freedom as key to a virtuous life, today we have come to suffer not so much from the “delusion of the love of work” described by Paul Lefargue in 1883 but rather the belief that our working selves are our definitive selves. Eighty years ago philosopher Bertrand Russell, in calling for a four-hour working day, suggested “a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work”. Add nearly a century of rapid technological and social advances, and the workification of leisure, and we arrive at a point where, as writer Jenny Odell put it (in a 2017 speech which kicked off a genre about rest), “it’s possible to understand the practice of doing nothing solely as a self-indulgent luxury”.

So it was with some trepidation, privilege and shame that I replied to my friend, “No. I think I’m going to keep that day.”

‘As that fifth day opens up, one starts to feel the weight of its infinite potential and the questions start to pile up.’
‘As that fifth day opens up, one starts to feel the weight of its infinite potential.’ Photograph: Jordan Lye/Getty Images

In Belgium in 2019, a women’s organisation flipped its staff on to a four-day week. At the outset, the female workforce was hopeful. More than four in five wished to prioritise personal time, and 60% wanted more time with their partner and children and to live healthier. A team of researchers followed the workers, who filled in time diaries. A year after the shift, just over two in five said they felt they had more time for themselves and 25% reported feeling like they had more time with their partner. The time freed up from doing less paid work was, the study found, “mostly was spent on household work”.

This is not to say that unpaid work hours made up for paid; the total working hours of these women decreased. “Employees did experience less household stress, less leisure time pressure and better work-life balance,” the report found, and that by reducing working hours the chances of work invading family life decreased.

Once I decided to keep to a four-day week, what followed was a continuous mental calculus as to how that day might work. My greatest fear was that the day might disappear – in housework, like the Belgians, or somehow in a thousand tiny pieces of inconsequential busyness. I feared I would not rest, and I feared I might rest too much.

I would steadfastly not work-work – take no calls, check no emails – but I could not escape the feeling that I must be accountable for that time. The idea of rest came with a spectre of guilt. A 2019 study, The Rest Test, led by psychologist and BBC radio presenter Claudia Hammond, found that for many people the prospect of resting was associated with anxiety and guilt.

And so, I planned my day with precision. In the morning, as I return to an empty house, I embark on at least two hours and no more than two hours and 45 minutes of housework. It is precise. I set alarms. I mop or dust or change sheets or get to all the other tasks that otherwise consume the rest of the week. The floor gleams with accomplishment. This is my insurance against guilt.

At no later than midday I stop. I have drawn a box around a time, in the middle of the day, as if by thick felt texta. This is my time. For no purpose other than my enjoyment of it. I leave the house and, from exactly 12:15pm to 1:15pm, I go to an exercise class I love. That hour cannot be broken apart or given to anyone or anything else. In this, it is rest. This is my insurance against resentment.

From 1:15pm until the school day ends is an amorphous time. I haven’t quite figured out yet what to do with it or who it belongs to. My day began with 12 admin things on my to-do list, and ends with nine. I have listened to three great podcasts. At my local cafe I have read one fascinating long article and, unhurried, stared out into the middle distance without guilt. The day is not magical. But as it ends, I feel somewhat lighter. Less stressed. I feel grateful. I feel ready for work.

Experiments in and evangelism for the four-day work week have come amid a flurry of books on time, work and rest. There is: Saving Time by Jenny Odell (a follow-up to 2019’s influential How to Do Nothing); Hanging Out: the Radical Power of Killing Time by Sheila Liming (2023); The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time by Richard Fisher (2023); Work Less, Do More (2023) by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (a follow-up to the rest-as-productivity-hack bible Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, 2018).

The overriding theme is a preoccupation with time in a society where many feel we have not enough of it. A grappling with rest and leisure in a culture which views low productivity as both an economic and individual failing. And perhaps, a fallout from a pandemic in which for many of us, time slowed, work morphed, technology marched and we had to face the question of what it is we actually value.

A number of books have been written extolling the four-day work week.
There is a growing movement towards demanding more time away from work. Photograph: Dragon Claws/Getty Images/iStockphoto

There is an air of a movement about these books. A sense of reclaiming our “right to be lazy” – first floated by Lafargue in 1883 and largely ignored ever since – or at least freed from the need to both be productive and demonstrate that productivity. A sense of indignation, almost, at the irony that at a time of unprecedented wealth and access to leisure, so many of us feel we have neither.

“We must work to seize and redistribute the wealth that is time,” writes Liming. “When we have done that, we must commit to the work of giving it all back to each other.”

Demands for more time away from work have been successful in the past. Great shifts in the way we order work and leisure time.

When electric lights kept shop workers labouring longer than before, the Early Closing Movement demanded a reduction to a 12-hour working day. As industrialisation increased productivity in Australia, workers ultimately achieved an eight-hour day, five-day week, claiming that more time for leisure would enable workers to improve their “social and moral condition” and be better fathers, husbands and citizens.

Technology had drawn more productivity out of workers, the argument went. Now it was their right to reclaim time saved by technology for themselves.

In 1932 Bertrand Russell wrote: “Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines. In this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”

Yet here we are, in the age of the most magnificent machines. Burnt out.

Are we now at a moment where our forever foolishness ends?

It may not be that the four-day work week revolutionises our minds as much as it might revolutionise our schedules. It will take more than a shift in logging on and logging off times to truly disconnect ourselves from the impetus to work ever more (including, what Odell calls the “work of self-optimisation”) or from the view that leisure’s purpose is to recuperate or distract from work.

But it is, perhaps, another stone on the road to the fabled promise land of work-life balance. To a place, in short, where we might see our time as ours.

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