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Four-day work week becomes possible under new rules

09:14 22/11/2022

The four-day work week officially became a reality for some workers in Belgium when new labour reforms came into force at the end of November.

These reforms allow for workers to split their work week into four days by working nine and a half hours in a day instead of seven and a half. The total amount of hours worked ends up being the same, but those who can choose this option will have a third day in their weekend.

There is also the possibility of working more in one week and then less in the following week, with the idea being that workers can take advantage of more flexible hours to enjoy an extra day off.

There are two main formulas that were approved in the agreement reached back in February: a person can complete their 38-hour week in four days instead of five, or they can work a 45-hour week and then work 31 hours in the following week.

“This will make it possible to better reconcile private and professional life,” said Pierre-Yves Dermagne (PS), who points out that the pandemic brought this need into sharp relief.

Employees wishing to adopt one of these modified schedules must submit a written request to their employer, who must reply within a month.

Reasons must be given for any refusal. These could include disruption to the organisation of work (particularly in the case of teamwork).

Before the measure comes into force, a company's work regulations must be amended if working hours are 38 hours per week, or a collective labour agreement must be signed if full-time is considered 40 hours per week.

In the event of an agreement, an addition is made to the employee's employment contract that remains valid for six months and can be renewed as many times as desired.

Pay will remain the same, though benefits that are tied to the number of working days (such as meal vouchers, for example) will potentially change. They could, however, be adapted to be tied to hours worked in a month, instead of days.

No aid or reduction in social security contributions is being granted to support the measure, unlike other experiments in collective reduction of working time implemented previously.

Reactions to the four-day work week have been mixed.

Only half of employers believe it will have a positive impact on the wellbeing of staff, according to a survey of 1,340 employers in Belgium conducted by Securex in October and published last week.

Some 23.3% of employers surveyed believe the four-day work week will actually have a negative impact on well-being. Just under a third (31.6%) believe that it will have a positive impact on productivity, while 35.7% expect a negative impact.

A quarter of respondents (25.7%) say that a four-day work week is not applicable in their company, mainly because some industries (such as hotels and catering) require five working days or because the impact on their business would be too great.

Unions cite concerns that the way the four-day work week is structured will not actually reduce stress or workload, in fact only making both higher on the days that are worked.

Michael Dufrasne, Brussels regional secretary of the CGSLB trade union, is doubtful but said the important thing is to ensure workers' freedom of choice.

“The figures for incapacity to work are exploding, and a large proportion of this incapacity to work is linked to burnout,” Dufrasne said.

“The idea that making people work longer will have beneficial effects? Perhaps for some. But we have to be very, very careful because we are concentrating the workload over four instead of five days. You have to add travel time. That could make for very long days. The agreement here is for six months. The possibility of going backwards is important for us.”

The four-day work week is currently possible only for employees in the private sector, and it is not compulsory.

Written by Helen Lyons