The debate on the merits of having a four-day working week has been ongoing since the pandemic, which saw the demand for flexibility in employees' working schedules increase, also buoyed by case studies that have shown a four-day week at work does not impact productivity.
Employees in Belgium's private sector now have the opportunity to work four days instead of five days per week as part of the Federal Government's new Labour Deal, aiming to ensure a better work-life balance.
According to the new law, the four-day week does not actually mean working fewer hours, contrary to the many studies proving that should be the main essence. On the contrary, it means condensing a 38-hour working week into four days instead of five.
Who can apply?
It is up to the companies themselves to choose whether this option will be made available or not. From this week, employees can apply for a four-day workweek, however, this option will not be available to everyone, as the scheme is mainly designed for the private sector.
The public sector (governmental services such as the military, law enforcement, public transport operators and public education) is not covered by the so-called 'working time legislation' which the four-day working week falls under. Within the private sector, the new rules apply to almost everyone who works full-time.
Anyone working part-time is not eligible as they have already opted to spread their working hours, while those working a four-day week still work full-time and they will therefore continue to hold the same salary and benefits including pension and holiday.
The request must come from the employee, as an employer cannot oblige an employee to take on a four-day week.
How to make the request
In practice, employees can already apply to work for four long days to get the fifth day off, but the possibility of working full-time on four days must first be formally introduced via the work regulations or a company collective agreement.
The form for this purpose and how the system can be introduced depends on the number of hours a full-time employee works per week in the company (a maximum of 38 hours per week or more than 38 hours and a maximum of 40 hours per week).
To benefit from a four-day week, an employee has to make a written request to their employer. Employees who do take it up will be able to work full-time in the four-day system for a maximum of six months, however, the periods can be extended again and again.
If the request is approved, the employer and the employee can reach an agreement on when the working day begins and finishes, including which day off would be taken. The agreement will be in writing, and the employer must provide a copy for the employee by the time the employee begins the new working conditions.
- Quarter of Belgian employers think four-day week is not possible
- 40% of Flemish employees want four-day working week
- Belgian companies expecting rise in employee demand for flexibility at work
If the employer refuses the request, they must give valid reasons for refusing it within one month and send it back to the employee. Such reasons could include that it disrupts teamwork within an organisation.
Importantly, an employee's request must neither result in unfavourable treatment from the employer nor become a reason for dismissing an employee.
Overtime on the day off is prohibited in a four-day working week, as this would "undermine the purpose of the measure." This means, in essence, that a worker could not work on their day off to then claim overtime, as it would undermine the policy's goal, which is to create a better work-life balance.
Despite what seems to be a positive system on paper, the prospect of a four-day working week may not be attractive to everyone. Under Belgian law, employees may end up working longer days after opting for compressing their hours. Others, including shift workers, do not have the opportunity to do so at all.