Big Ideas: should we be working a 4 day week?


Big Ideas is a series where NewStart explores the cutting edge concepts that could change our economy and society. In the first instalment, we spoke to Aiden Harper from the 4DayWeek campaign about the benefits of a 4day working week, and whether or not it’s feasible.

The movement has gained traction in 2018, with the TUC recently coming out in support of it and Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell saying the party are considering including it in their next manifesto.

Why do you believe in the 4 day working week?

We believe it would benefit our environment, our society, the individual and the economy more broadly.

Within the UK there’s a crisis of overwork. The biggest cause of sick leave in the UK is work-related stress, and the biggest cause of stress is overwork. The very model of work time we have in this country is causing illness and forcing people not to work, which is counter-intuitive from a purely economic point of view.

It should be fixed, and there should be a model of work time which stops the harm overwork is bringing about.

There’s also a really strong gender equality argument about how work is currently organised in the UK.  Women do 60% more unpaid labour than men, and as a result are far more likely to burn out within work. So there’s an argument to redistribute unpaid work and domestic labour between genders, and the biggest barrier for that at the moment is the current work model.

In terms of the economy, if people take sick days then their companies are paying for that. Also, there is a high amount of turnover in careers which are very time intensive. This is damaging for the economy and a serious economic drag. Businesses that have moved to a shorter working week have found that workers increase their productivity, are happier, and are much more loyal to their organisation.

If a business is making a profit and has a happy workforce working 5 days a week, why should they rock the boat and reduce working hours?

Discussions often focus on individual SMEs, but if you look at the economy more broadly, since the 1970s we are 2.5 times more productive yet we don’t work any less. We have the capacity within our economy to work far fewer hours and we don’t need to work as many hours as we currently do. There needs to be a conversation about where that productivity is going. Is it being syphoned off into the hands of the few?

Within Europe, the countries who work the fewest hours are Germany, The Netherlands and most of Scandinavia, yet those are the some of the strongest economies within Europe. The country that works the most hours is Greece. There isn’t a positive correlation with working more hours and the opposition appear to be true. If you look after your workers and give them more time to rest you get people who are more productive in the jobs they do.

There are lots of conversations at the moment about AI and automation. It can create either a mass dystopia of unemployment or it can be used to create a shorter working week and think about how work is distributed.

Who should pay for automation?

The Commercial Workers Union (CWU),  who negotiate on behalf of postal workers, recently reached an agreement with Royal Mail. They had automated a part of the parcel packaging process which changed a chunk of the postal workers day. The CWU said automation is fine, but you should share the financial benefits of increased productivity due to automation fairly with your workers and not just your shareholders.

They’ve done that in the form of worktime reduction. They called it the Drive to 35. They’re in the process of reducing the postal workers week down to 35 hours a week with an increase in pay.

There are strong arguments around why workplaces should be working fewer hours. These are exactly the type of arguments we had when we created weekends and having an 8 hour day.  The world didn’t fall apart.

Instead, shouldn’t we be focusing on creating better quality jobs as well as skills training so people feel more fulfilled at work?

The 4 day week is not a silver bullet and exists in a broader social and economic context, all of which impacts on the lives of individual workers. This includes things like wages, the welfare state, social networks, housing, transport, education etc.

Bad work should be fixed in its own right, just as low wages and a deteriorating social safety net should be. But none of those things contradicts the arguments as to why a shorter working week will be a good thing.

How does the 4-day week figure into public services such as healthcare or education?

Doctors and nurses are leaving the NHS in their droves and a major part of that is due to overwork. Teachers too. The natural, reasonable thing to do for these people is to reduce their working hours. There’s a very strong argument there.

Tired doctors kill people. If you’re overworked you’re five times as likely to make a diagnostic error.

Workers in the UK have suffered from stagnant wages for a long time now. Won’t employers use the 4 day week as an excuse to keep wages low?

I would argue against the reduction of wages. There is a case that certain people who earn lots of money in the economy who might like the choice to reduce hours with a cut in pay.

As I mentioned, productivity has increased by 2.5% since the 1970s so we have the capacity in our economy to do this.

Yes, we’ve had stagnating wages for a long time, and that needs to be taken into consideration when bringing about a 4 day week.

The 4 day week is how you orient yourself when thinking about where this economy should be and how people function within it.

At the end of the day, the 4 day a week is about asking what is the economy for? Is the economy for working and working and working? At what point do we say we no longer have to work as much to maintain the standard of living we have.

Surely the purpose of work is to enjoy the life you have. There’s an obsession with work which says human value only comes from work. I think that’s really toxic mindset to have.

Thomas Barrett
Senior journalist - NewStart Follow him on Twitter


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