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Belgium to offer employees four-day working week

Commuters exit Brussels-Schuman underground station in front of the European Commission headquarters in 2017. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Belgium is the latest country to announce plans to offer employees the option to request a four-day workweek, as the government seeks to boost flexibility in the workplace amid the coronavirus crisis after what Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said had been two “difficult years.”

The overhaul of the country’s labor laws will give workers more freedom — and the right to ignore their bosses and work emails after working hours, another growing trend in the coronavirus era.

The agreement, which was struck by the seven-party coalition federal government, aims “to be able to make people and businesses stronger,” De Croo said during a news conference Tuesday, adding that the country was seeking to become “more innovative, sustainable and digital.”

De Croo said his administration aims to incentivize more people to work. The employment rate in Belgium stood at roughly 71 percent at the end of last year, and the government hopes to increase that proportion to 80 percent by 2030.

If trade unions agree, employees can opt to work for a maximum of 10 hours a day to accrue hours that will help them earn a three-day weekend. Previously, workdays were capped at eight hours, Reuters reported. They can also choose to work more during one week and less the next. Employees will not be paid any less, and the decision will be theirs to make.

“This has to be done at the request of the employee, with the employer giving solid reasons for any refusal,” Labor Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne said.

An employer that turns down a request for a shorter workweek would have to provide a strong reason in writing.

Flexible work schedules will particularly help parents who are separated and share custody to spend more time with their children, Dermagne said in a statement. The rules will also grant stronger protections to workers in the gig economy, among other groups.

Also in the reform package: the right to disconnect after work. The concept predated the pandemic in much of Europe, but the shift to remote work during the pandemic challenged these worker protections. Under the Belgian plan, employers with 20 or more workers will not be permitted to expect employees to read or respond to messages outside of working hours. The rule is a response to “the more and more porous border between work and private life” and its “harmful effects,” Dermagne said, including burnout and difficulty juggling family responsibilities.

The draft legislation must pass several readings by lawmakers before it can be enacted.

Belgium’s move toward more work-life flexibility is part of a broader global trend. Experts say the pandemic has propelled people to reassess their careers and search for happiness. Japan and Spain are among a handful of countries trying a voluntary four-day working week, which advocates say leads to better work-life balance and generally more productivity. Companies in the United States have also tested out the model.

Several large-scale trials of a four-day workweek in Iceland were an “overwhelming success,” researchers said over the summer, with many workers shifting to shorter hours without affecting their productivity. In some cases, they became more productive — and happier. Researchers concluded that the “transformative positive effects” of a shorter working week are beneficial for employees and businesses alike.

The movement for a four-day workweek made headway in the 1970s but eventually lost steam. Decades later, amid labor shortages and a wave of workers quitting their jobs in some countries, labor experts think the idea could have greater staying power. They say the pandemic has accelerated the shift toward a shorter workweek.

The concept of a shorter working week “is really rising in prominence, momentum and popularity, not just in the U.K. but all across the world right now,” Joe Ryle, an officer for the U.K.-based 4 Day Week Campaign, a group calling for better work-life balance, told The Post in June. He added that many people were seeking “a better future of work.”

Read more:

Iceland tested a four-day workweek. Employees were productive — and happier, researchers say.

Spain will experiment with four-day workweek, a first for Europe

Japan proposes four-day workweek as idea gains purchase amid pandemic

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