Consider advantages of introducing optional 4-day workweek system

An increasing number of companies are reportedly adopting a system to allow employees to take three days off a week if they choose to do so. The government intends to further support such moves, but it needs to carefully consider introducing the system so that it will not be disadvantageous to employees and the employment situation.

The government has included in its Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform a measure to encourage companies to introduce a system that allows employees to take three days off a week if they wish to do so.

The measure is aimed at making it easier for employees to balance their work with child-rearing, caregiving for family members and volunteer activities, and even enable them to concurrently hold an urban job and a rural one. With the optional system, there is also an expectation that employees will be able to make use of their free time for career development, such as studying at graduate schools.

As the number of workers is decreasing due to the declining population, it is necessary to create an environment in which workers in various circumstances, such as people raising children or caring for family members, can work comfortably.

However, the impact of introducing a four-day workweek system is complicated because it could lead to a substantial increase in effective hourly wages for employees. As a result, the options for companies are to extend employees’ working hours on workdays or lower wages in order to reduce labor costs.

The introduction of the system must not be rushed merely for companies’ own convenience.

Only a small number of companies, particularly large ones, have adopted a four-day workweek for employees who want to do so.

Uniqlo Co. has introduced the system for local full-time employees who do not transfer to other areas. In such cases, the company has increased the number of working hours per day to keep the salary level the same as it would be for a five-day workweek.

Mizuho Financial Group Inc. has introduced a system that allows employees to take three to four days off a week at its five affiliates. Many users of the system take days off to care for children and family members or obtain qualifications, but their salaries decrease according to the number of days off they take.

However, small and midsize companies, many of which are suffering from labor shortages, say a four-day workweek will only likely be adopted in exceptional cases.

According to a survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, fewer than 10% of companies have taken steps — such as offering a four-day workweek — to allow employees to actually take more days off than would be possible in a full-fledged five-day workweek.

It is essential for labor and management to devise ways to realize diverse and flexible work styles in accordance with the needs of employees. The four-day workweek is also an issue that should be considered as one of several options, rather than attempting to adopt it uniformly.

Even if the four-day workweek is optional, companies could strongly encourage employees to use the system in order to reduce labor costs. How can such a situation be prevented? The government should study work styles that suit the times from various perspectives.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 24, 2021.