Is it time for a four-day work week?

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that by the 21st century, we would all be working 15 hours a week. Why is the debate over working time gaining momentum now? (AP/Sang Tan)

This March, the UK Labour Party commissioned an inquiry into a shorter working week following calls from campaigners and trade unions to reduce the number of days forming a full-time week from five to four.

For the Trade Union Congress (TUC), which announced it was supporting the policy in September, the key urgency is to share the benefits of automation evenly.

Paul Sellers, a working time policy officer from the TUC, tells Equal Times: “We need to make sure we have not only efficient ways of producing and distributing things, but that we also share [the benefits]. There is renewed interest in working time from unions, and a reduction in working hours was recently agreed for 119,500 postal workers.”

The reduction started from one weekly hour in September 2018, with the aim of a 35-hour week in 2022.

The 4 Day Week campaign, which advocates for a shorter working week in the UK and is supported by the think tanks Autonomy and New Economics Foundation, detailed the case for a shorter working week in a report published in February: it could improve health and well-being, as well as environmental sustainability and gender equality.

“A huge amount of money is lost by employers through sick days because of overwork. By moving to a four-day week, you could cut the number of sick days,” says Rachel White from the campaign, speaking to Equal Times.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, (the UK government agency responsible for the regulation and enforcement of workplace health and safety), in the UK depression or anxiety accounted for 57 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health last year, and 44 per cent of those illnesses were work-related.

“A four-day week challenges our current culture of work, which is that people are always ‘on,’” reflects White.

Working less could enable a more even distribution of household duties. Currently men are more likely to work full-time and the majority of household tasks falls on women.

Rethinking our relationship to work would enable society to value care work differently, both paid and unpaid.

“A four-day week doesn’t necessarily address that problem specifically, but it does open up the discussion of what we value as work and why we value it, and what else could we start valuing,” says White, who started to see work as political when, during her time as a youth worker, she was encouraged to push the young people she was supporting into badly-paid, precarious jobs.

“Working long hours is also resource-intensive: commuting puts a strain on the environment. People are more likely to use convenience products like frozen and ready-meals,” White explains.

This has been the case for 33-year-old Patrick Bettington, who works for an international events company in London. “I use time to make things myself rather than spending the money that I earn to buy them,” he says.

Bettington has chosen to work fewer hours, however this has resulted in an equivalent reduction in wage, which is not what campaigners or trade unions are advocating for. Four years ago, he left a career that required a lot of travel and working up to 12 hours a day; put off by the experience, he asked his new job if he could work four days instead of five.

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“I wasn’t prepared to give work the majority of my life anymore. I decided I would rather have the extra time than the extra money,” he says.

Global appeal

There are numerous examples of companies that are beginning to embrace the benefits of a shorter work day or shorter working hours. One year ago, New Zealand corporate trustee company Perpetual Guardian shifted to a four-day week, and in 2015 a Swedish local authority trialled a six-hour day in a care home with positive results for both staff and residents.

Sleighdogs, a technology venture company based in Berlin and Prague, trialled a four-day week last summer. Ninety-one per cent of employees said they were happier, and 64 per cent said they could focus better.

However, Sleighdogs did not permanently switch to a shorter week, because they found that free time was not distributed equally. Those whose work included outward-facing communications could not afford the free time, which made pressure on bottlenecks worse.

“As a small company, the moment you change the rules of the game you are playing and other people don’t, you are playing a slightly different game,” says Sleighdogs co-founder Karl Karafiat. “Not every client was happy that we didn’t respond in time on a Friday because I was overloaded.”

Karafiat is planning to reintroduce the policy in the summer, but this time some workers will have Fridays off, while others will be off on Mondays.

Timo Aalto, the CEO of a Finnish marketing company Tapaus Oy, decided last year to disable access to work emails after 6pm in the evening, and on weekends. “I saw employees become strained from work and concluded that it was because there was not enough time for rest,” he says.

“Most people did not notice much effect, but for some it was a game changer. One of the key persons to resist the idea said after the trial week that they had never slept so well.”

The policy was put in place permanently for management level, as during a trial it emerged they were the ones to benefit most from it. For Aalto himself, the biggest difference has been made by having weekends off. No business has been lost.

At Sleighdogs, the perceived productivity of workers has also increased. Output is most important for Karafiat: “I don’t want people to sit eight hours at their desk working to the clock if they are not getting anything done.”

This is why the company also has totally flexible working hours and unlimited holidays.

Bettington says the original effect of a day off was to make his life easier: it enabled him to feel more relaxed, but it also gave him more time for appointments such as visits to the doctors, which need to take place Monday to Friday. Recently, he has reduced his days to three and started a part-time master’s degree course.

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What’s behind the popularity of shorter working time?

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that by the 21st century, we would all be working 15 hours a week. Why is the debate over working time gaining momentum now?

“Since the recession and austerity, jobs have been made lower quality. There are loads more people on zero-hour contracts, working longer hours and in more precarious jobs. People are out there looking for ideas on how to change things,” says White.

The 4 Day campaign believes that shortening what is considered a normal working week would increase the bargaining power of all workers, including those who work on an hourly wage or on a freelance basis, which would put upward pressure on wages for everyone. In the UK, for example, poverty wages are a persistent problem: in 2018, four million workers lived in poverty, with in-work poverty rising faster than employment.

White also thinks that adjusting the social security net is important to support people through gaps in employment, and to make sure that no one has to take on work with unacceptable conditions just to survive.

“We’ve got some entrenched problems in the UK,” says Sellers from the TUC. “One is very short hours and unstable hours, whether it’s zero-hour contracts or just unpredictable short shifts, and then the other end is a growing number of people working more than 48 hours a week. So we need to get to a fair working time, or a more human pattern of work.”

The TUC estimates there are 1.4 million people in the UK working seven days a week. The number of people working more than 48 hours a week has risen from three million to 3.5 million in the last ten years.

The TUC advocates for tougher enforcement where people are not getting the time off they are entitled to, and for legislation to give workers notice for shifts so they do not get told the same morning they need to go to work, or turn up to find their shift cancelled.

Despite the long working hours, UK productivity is lagging behind the rest of Europe. German workers produce by lunchtime Thursday the same output as British workers by the end of Friday. British workplaces are said to suffer from ‘presenteeism’, where employees come to work but are not fit to work at full capacity.

For White, the answer is simple: “If a four-day week doesn’t affect our productivity and makes us healthier and happier, why aren’t we doing it?”

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