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Spain will experiment with four-day workweek, a first for Europe

March 15, 2021 at 10:40 a.m. EST

For years, advocates for a four-day workweek have argued that a compressed schedule could lead to more productivity and a better work-life balance — a perspective that has gained credence in some countries amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has wrought drastic changes to the way people work.

Spain is about to find out firsthand whether it works. The country is poised to become one of the first to experiment with a 32-hour workweek, which would allow workers to spend less time at the office without any change in pay.

Exactly what the pilot program will look like is unclear: An individual with the industry ministry told the Guardian that nearly every detail was still up for negotiation, including how many companies will be involved and how long the experiment will last.

The test run was proposed by Más País, a left-wing party that has argued that longer hours don’t necessarily lead to higher productivity, and it is now in talks with the government to figure out the exact details of the arrangement. According to Spanish media outlets, the pilot program is intended to reduce employers’ risk by having the government make up the difference in salary when workers switch to a four-day schedule.

“Spain will be the first country to undertake a trial of this magnitude,” Héctor Tejero, of Más País, told the Guardian. “A pilot project like this hasn’t been undertaken anywhere in the world.”

The experiment is expected to cost about 50 million euros ($59.5 million) and last three years. According to the Guardian, it could begin as early as this fall.

Although the push for a four-day workweek was already gaining support before the pandemic, the radical upending of office life has made the idea seem more viable to politicians around the world. So has the fact that furlough programs mean many employees are already being paid to work fewer hours a week — or not at all.

In May, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern suggested employers should consider the switch to a four-day week “if that’s something that would work for your workplace.”

The crisis has also led to an increased push to address burnout and allow more flexibility for employees at a time when job duties frequently spill over into home life. Until last year, workers in many European nations benefited from a “right to disconnect” that barred emails and phone calls after the end of the workday. But the switch to remote work has tested those limits, and some politicians feel there needs to be a sharper line drawn between work life and home life.

For employees juggling work with taking care of young children, even a standard 40-hour week can be overwhelming. Switching to a 32-hour workweek would mean “putting mental health at the center of the political agenda,” Iñigo Errejón, a leader of Más País, wrote on Twitter over the weekend.

Large corporations like Microsoft and Shake Shack have experimented with four-day workweeks in the past, but Spain’s pilot program would be much larger in scale. Más País calculates that the budget should be enough to allow around 200 companies to take part. That means that anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 workers would have regular three-day weekends, according to the Guardian.

Spain was one of the first countries in western Europe to limit the workday to eight hours, but recent studies have found Spanish workers put in more hours than many of their European counterparts, with no corresponding increase in productivity.

Proponents of a four-day workweek argue that allowing more people to work fewer hours could go a long way in addressing the high unemployment rates that have plagued so many countries throughout the pandemic. But many business leaders have been less than enthusiastic about cutting hours without cutting pay, which is where Spain’s proposal to cover some of the costs comes in.

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