FIRST Minister Humza Yousaf announced to widespread fanfare and much acclaim in September last year that the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government would include financial support to trial a four-day week in a number of government departments and public bodies.

The move is part of the Holyrood Government’s Fair Work programme in which the achievement of fulfilling and satisfying work is a key goal.

Meantime, the Tory government at Westminster has threatened to cut funding to councils in England which progressed the issue, such as South Cambridgeshire District Council, which has implemented a substantial trial in terms of both the numbers covered and the length of the trial.

Interestingly, the Keir Starmer-led Labour Party’s flagship New Deal for Working People makes no mention of a shorter working week. It makes all the right noises about work-life balance but offers little in the way of anything concrete to achieve this.

Before the announcement of its trial, in 2021, the Scottish Government made £10 million available to help private companies take part in a four-day working week pilot programme. But according to a Freedom of Information request in late 2023, none of this money had been allocated or spent. Starting somewhat later than planned, the Scottish Government pilot study has begun at South of Scotland Enterprise, involving around 140 workers. There is a three-hour reduction in working hours per week to 32 without loss of pay and the trial will run for a year.

It remains to be seen whether budgetary pressures might limit or delay the introduction of further pilot studies in different parts of the public sector.

Before the announcement in September, the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) carried out a survey which covered 144 human resource and personnel practitioners in Scotland.

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One of the key findings was that a majority of these managers were against a reduction in the number of hours worked per week if there was not also a reduction in pay to accompany this, even though most acknowledged that productivity would increase with fewer hours being worked.

Potentially, the increase in productivity could offset, if not pay, for the lack of a reduction in wages.

This starkly indicates the scale of the uphill challenge to persuade or cajole private-sector employers into implementing a four-day week.

It provides the reasoning as to why no employers took up the opportunity to access the Scottish Government funding.

Despite increased and now intense budgetary pressures, it has to be hoped that further pilot studies or trials are introduced and that these show positive results so a head of steam can be built up.

But this will, in all likelihood, only be relevant for the public sector in Scotland or where the Scottish Government is the grant funder of specific services.

With a recession likely this year and further pressure upon employment levels as a result of the wider use of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, there is an ever more pressing case for the existing amount of work available to be spread around the workforce in Scotland.

This would also mean the benefits of non-work time are more widely available, whether these be better wellbeing or work-life balance.  But as is already more than apparent, it will take much more than moral or even evidence-based arguments – such as surveys finding majority public support for a shorter working week or significant expected productivity gains – to move the situation on.

Even the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) policy of wanting the Scottish Government to introduce a national subsidy for companies which switch to a 32-hour working week with no loss of pay is unlikely to be the game changer should it ever come to fruition.

What is needed is an element of compulsion and this is where the SNP and Scottish Government fall down, and fall down badly.

The carrots have not been enough so the stick must now be introduced, even within the limitations of the devolved settlement where employment matters are still reserved.

The Fair Work policy, under which the four-day week falls, is largely a voluntary affair. Only very gradually over time has it been beefed up to include moves towards compelling those that tender for public sector contracts or work to include clear and firm measures to conform to “fair work”.

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But there are still many ways for employers to get around being compelled. What is needed is a legal requirement that introducing a four-day week for those seeking these contracts or work is mandatory.

And while after Brexit there may be complications, due to the Internal Market Act 2020, the Scottish Government should push the envelope here. It’s already done so on other matters such as gender recognition and the right to hold an independence referendum.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds and author of the Mick Lynch: The making of a working-class hero (Manchester University Press, 2024)