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The case for a shorter working week

14736893_sA shorter working week would to help combat high levels of work-related stress and be good for the economy. While the UK government’s new flexible working plan is a welcome move in the right direction, it will still be too easy for employers to block requests.

John Ashton, the President of the UK Faculty of Public Health recently said:

When you look at the way we lead our lives, the stress people are under, the pressure on time and sickness absence, mental health is clearly a major issue. We should be moving towards a four-day week because you’ve got a proportion of people who are working too hard and a proportion that haven’t got jobs. The lunch-hour has gone; people just have a sandwich at their desk and carry on working. So we need a four-day week so that people can enjoy their lives, have more time with their families, and maybe reduce high blood pressure because people might start exercising on that extra day. It would mean that people might smile more and be happier and improve general health.”

Britons work some of the longest hours in Europe, which surveys have linked to stress, sleep problems, reduced productivity and the taking of sick leave.

The TUC supports the idea of a four day week while recognising that it wouldn’t work for everyone. Frances O’Grady said:

But there’s also a growing problem with excessive working hours, with millions of employees under real pressure as they attempt to balance work with their everyday lives. And despite this week’s change in the law it’s still too easy for employers to block flexible working requests, however nicely a worker asks.”

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has argued the case for a shorter working week since 2010, with their report ’21 Hours’, and most recently in their book, Time on Our Side. NEF also argues that the benefits extend to the economy and the environment. Many countries with shorter average hours have stronger economies. Workers on shorter hours tend to be more productive hour for hour, and a shorter standard week opens up more opportunities for the jobless to move into employment. They also have a smaller carbon footprint.

Gothenburg in Sweden has announced a one-year experiment with a six-hour day for some of its employees, to see how their performance compares with others on an eight-hour day. In Utah, USA, state employees were given a three-day weekend and most staff felt their morale was higher and their productivity just as good. Even corporate Google allows its staff to use up to one day a week of their paid time to pursue their own interests, recognising that long working hours can severely dampen creativity.

In many jobs, work doesn’t stop when the worker leaves the office. France has introducedrules to protect people working in the digital and consultancy sectors from work email outside office hours. The deal signed between employers federations and unions says that employees will have to switch off work phones and avoid looking at work email, while firms cannot pressure staff to check messages. The move follows similar restrictions on out-of-hours email imposed by German firms including Volkswagen, BMW, Puma and the German Labour Ministry.

NEF and the TUC rightly argue that a shorter working week must be done in ways that narrow rather than widen inequalities. A move towards shorter working hours must therefore go hand-in-hand with an assault on low pay. No-one should have to work long, unsocial hours, just to feed and house their families.

In the UK union claims for a shorter working week have gone out of fashion in recent years. Maybe we should look again at working time?

This article first appeared at Dave Watson’s blog

Image Copyright: dskdesign / 123RF Stock Photo

One Comment

  1. David Pavett says:

    I would like to see a shorter average working week and I believe that it is possible. On the other hand I don’t think that it is going to happen any time soon. Neither does the case made by Dave Watson seem convincing to me.

    First, far more attention needs to be paid to detail. It is said that Britons work among the longest hours in Europe. This is true but the differences with other most other comparable countries are small. EU average hours are 41.6 hr/week. In the UK it is 42.7. France has 41.1. How significant is that?

    Then there is the problem of examples given without references or analysis. Thus the 4-day week of Utah state employees is mentioned. In fact it is 17,000 of them and not all. Furthermore their 4-day week is based on 10-hour days! That means that they are working very close to the EU average.

    Material on a 21-hour week from the New Economics foundation is referenced as evidence. The trouble is that this material is completely unconvincing. The NEF booklet on the 21-hour week deals with the problem of the fall in the standard of living which would seem to result from a shorter working week by saying

    Ensuring a fair living income. Options for dealing with the impact on earnings of a much shorter working week include redistribution of income and wealth through more progressive taxation; an increased minimum wage; a radical restructuring of state benefits; carbon trading designed to redistribute income to poor households; more and better public services; and encouraging more uncommodified activity and consumption.

    So that’s it. All you have to do is redistribute wealth. Simples! Except that, of course it is not simple. This way of trying to smuggle in fundamental social change as an adjunct of a shorter working week when the political battles for those changes have not even been discussed at the political level is really a waste of time.

    I am astonished at the naivety of the NEF arguments on this and surprised that Dave Watson seems to find them convincing.

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