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The coronation of King Charles III has increased the number of public holidays in the United Kingdom this year. The special public holiday on the Monday after the May 6th ceremony, along with the bank holiday in early May and the spring bank holiday at the end, certainly made for a month of celebrations for many workers.
Public holidays in the United Kingdom – and in England and Wales in particular – are usually very rare occasions. The coronation celebration brings the total number to nine in 2023, which is still fewer than any country in the European Union. Given that working hours in the UK are 11% higher throughout the year than in Germany, for example, it is not so clear that more work and less vacation is a sign of economic success.
Currently nine of the top ten most productive countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, measured by GDP per hour worked in dollars, are located in continental Europe. However this is an area with a tradition of long vacations. There is also evidence that national holidays have a small but positive effect on economic activity, or at least no bad effect.
Having multiple three-day weekends in one month also highlights new pilots working four days a week (with no loss of wages) in many countries. Iceland spearheaded one of the first big trials between 2015 and 2019, the success of which saw it roll out to nearly 90% of Iceland’s workforce. These people can now request a shorter work week without any loss of wages.
Results from the New Zealand experience among Unilever employees also showed strong results against standard business goals such as revenue growth. The vast majority of participants reported feeling engaged and absenteeism decreased by 34% during the trial.
A similar six-month pilot program ran in the UK from June to December 2022, with the participation of 61 companies and around 2,900 workers. As with the other trials, the organizers said it was an “outstanding success” for the companies involved – 56 of the 61 companies pledged to continue the four-day work week.
Paying 100% of standard wages for 80% of previous working time may seem uneconomic, but the UK experience found that “the vast majority of firms were also satisfied with maintaining work performance and productivity”. The employee retention rate also improved, with the number of people leaving participating companies dropping by 57% during the trial.
Read more: The UK’s pilot four-day workweek program was a success – here’s what comes next
Wellbeing and health benefits
But the most important benefit to employees from these four-day experiences was in terms of well-being. The UK experience reported that 39% of employees were less stressed and 71% said they had reduced burnout levels by the end. The average mental health score (on a five-point scale from poor to excellent) increased from 2.95 at the start of the trial to 3.32 by the end of the trial – an increase of 13%. Regarding anxiety, 54% of respondents reported a decrease in negative emotions.
A similar improvement in well-being was seen in a four-day Ireland workweek trial that was completed in 2022. Among the 12 participating Irish firms, employees experienced a decrease in anxiety and negative feelings and an increase in positive feelings (and the expression of those feelings) throughout the experiment.
The previously mentioned New Zealand experience also confirmed the powerful positive effects of four days a week on well-being. More than two-thirds of the participants reported a better work-life balance, and measured stress levels decreased by 33% over the course of the trial.
Four working days a week, as opposed to public holidays
But the benefits from the four-day-a-week trials are permanent because they come from a long-term change in working arrangements, at least during the trial. Therefore, the effects of the wave of May public holidays in the UK this year may be different.
This was certainly proven to be the case by a study that looked at the well-being benefits of national holidays in 200 countries. It found that the least public holiday reduced the likelihood of happiness by 0.8 percentage points, but the least public holiday had no effect on a longer-term measure of life satisfaction.
But other research shows that although the positive well-being effect of public holidays may not be permanent, it does lead to increased social cohesion or social capital. This brings its economic and welfare benefits. For all but a minority of the workforce, public holidays ensure that people use them at leisure. Social cohesion has long been associated with positive well-being.
We need to focus on wellbeing in the workplace more than ever. In addition to several high-profile workplace bullying and harassment scandals recently, calls to employee help hotlines have reached record levels due to anxiety and depression among employees. These initiatives are designed to meet demand for a range of work related enquiries and advice, and not to act as an emergency mental health service.
And so, the coronation holiday may give working people in the UK the much-needed celebration. Whatever your view of the royal family, public holidays in May will benefit the economy, but more importantly, they will boost well-being for much of the country.