Supporters in the Senedd of a four-day working week for Wales argue that "we cannot bury our heads in the sand" and ignore the sweeping changes the pandemic has brought to our working habits.

As The National reported recently, interest in a four-day working week – which would allow employees more free time without being paid less – is growing, and pilot schemes have already been held, or planned, in other countries.

Today, Plaid Cymru members of the Senedd spoke enthusiastically about the benefits such a scheme could bring to Wales.

Luke Fletcher said the impact of the pandemic on our working habits had been profound.

He said there had been "a distinct, positive shift in creating a better work-life balance" for "many" workers, and provided an opportunity to review the "unbalanced" economy.

The continuing move towards more automation in the workplace would threaten at least 30 per cent of existing jobs by 2030, he told the Senedd, but technological advances could be "perceived both as a promise and a threat": automation could mean mass redundancies, but could also "liberate workers from the grind of long hours and bolster wages".

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Fletcher pointed to Iceland, where a recent pilot was hailed as a resounding success, as showing how a four-day working week could have benefits beyond simply cutting hours.

"Workers reported feeling less stressed and less at risk of burnout through improved work-life balances," he said.

Plaid MS Sioned Williams said a four-day working week could also address gender inequality, although it was "no silver bullet" for "decades" of imbalance in the workplace.

"The opportunity offered by a four-day working week to women would be more effective than the myriad of gender equality reviews and policies that are unevenly deployed and unevenly monitored," she said, adding: "Giving women more time to pursue a life in and beyond work will help to increase female participation and representation in those organisations that most need to understand their experiences."

Peredur Owen Griffiths (also Plaid) spoke about the community benefits a four-day scheme could bring, with more time available for people to take up volunteering opportunites. With fewer hours to spend working, people would have less risk of "burnout" and stress.

"A four-day working week is part of the antidote to the problem caused by the stress of modern life," he added. "It will improve mental well-being, as it will allow people more free time to relax."

The Senedd also heard supporting voices from other parties: Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Jane Dodds said Wales was "well-placed" to trial a four-day working week scheme, due to the high number of public-sector workers here. 

Labour MS Jack Sargeant, who spoke previously to The National about his support for a four-day working week, said employees' lot in the UK was "unacceptable".

"A four-day week presents people with a better work-life balance, it allows them quality time to themselves, time to volunteer, time to learn, time to allow them to make the choices they deserve," he said. "It also helps address the stress epidemic and the huge levels of anxiety that modern life brings. And, crucially, the evidence suggests that it helps with productivity."

But there was opposition to the plans, too, and the Welsh Conservatives opposed Plaid's calls for the Welsh Government to set up a pilot scheme.

Tory MS Joel James said the arguments for a four-day working week relied on the "very complicated" measurement of productivity.

"There is no linear correlation to working less, being paid the same and increased productivity," he said. "While very large companies may be able to reduce workloads with a reduction in the number of working days, I argue that many smaller organisations will probably still expect the same workloads for the same pay.

"What a four-day working week will ultimately do is create a divide, where some workers in the public sector and large organisations would enjoy working less, while others will be worked harder in those four days in an effort to keep businesses open."

His party colleague James Evans agreed, arguing that a four-day working week "could potentially cause a two-tiered system with workers, with those who can actually work four days a week and those in our food processing industry, our farmers and our lorry drivers, who are keeping food on our tables and on our shelves, who can't."

Gareth Davies (also Conservative) raised concerns that the move to four working days could have a negative impact on the care sector.

"We cannot fill the posts needed to provide good, safe care as it is, let alone increasing the workforce by a fifth," he said, adding: "If we were to sign up to Plaid's latest social experiment, we would need an additional 10,000 staff tomorrow. Even the most vocal advocates of four-day working have to admit that's impossible."

Responding to the debate, Hannah Blythyn, the deputy minister for social partnership, agreed the pandemic had "transformed the way we look at almost everything in our daily lives".

"The pace and scale of change in the world of work is immense, and the pandemic has served to intensify interest in more flexible practices, from longer term remote working and working closer to home to more prominent considerations of a shift to a four-day working week," she added.

But while many workers had found benefits in the pandemic-enforced changes to working habits, others had not, she told colleagues, and "we need to make sure that we approach any progressive changes in a progressive and a fair way to ensure equity of opportunity".

Blythyn said she would monitor the progress of the scheme in Iceland and the planned pilot in Scotland, but said the Welsh Government would prefer to take a more "evidence-based approach" to such a pilot here, rather than accepting Plaid's calls for a more immediate start.

In the end it was the government's amended motion which was passed, which "calls on the Welsh Government to consider the progress that is made through pilots in other countries and examine the lessons Wales can learn".

Blythyn told the Senedd: "We will continue to take a close interest in the evidence around a four-day working week, in particular evidence that a four-day working week can improve people's work-life balance, help us cut carbon emissions and air pollution and support gender equality, without resulting in a loss of pay or a lowering of terms and conditions, whilst maintaining, and hopefully improving, productivity."

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