Experts call for shorter working week

Tom Lawson

Two health and business professionals have joined growing calls for a reduced working week in order to improve employee wellbeing and business efficiency

Does your working week feel too long? If so you’re not alone. In April a YouGov survey found that 57% of UK workers would support a four-day week, with 71% believing that it would make country a happier place.

Now two leading experts in the fields of health and business have joined calls for reducing the number of days in the average working week. In July, top UK doctor John Ashton and Mexican telecoms billionaire Carlos Slim both put forward proposals for working weeks that they argue would create a healthier, more productive and more equal society.

Dr Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, believes that a standard working week should be reduced from five days to four in order to improve public health. He argues that it would reduce the prevalence of conditions such as high blood pressure and stress-related illnesses that may result from overwork. He also argued that it would allow people to spend more time with their families and cut unemployment.

“The problem we have in the world of work is you’ve got a proportion of the population who are working too hard and a proportion that haven’t got jobs,” Ashton told the Guardian.

“It is viable,” said Ashton. “We’ve had the European working-time directive. Why couldn’t we move to a four-day week? The fifth day could be a community activity day, a giving back day.”

Carlos Slim, the world’s second richest man, has a similar view. To increase leisure time he has proposed a global three-day working week, but with longer working hours per day and delaying retirement until workers reach their 70s.

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However not everyone is convinced. David Kern, chief economist for the British Chamber of Commerce, claimed that productivity gains would not make up for the lost working hours and Philip Booth from the Institute of Economic Affairs described Slim’s idea as “a childcare nightmare.”

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) support the two proposals. The independent think-tank released a report in 2010 highlighting the benefits of shorter working hours and in 2013 published the book Time On Our Side: Why We All Need a Shorter Working Week.

Along with the reasons cited by Ashton and Slim, NEF believe that a shorter working week would reduce carbon emissions, improve gender equality and create a stronger democracy by allowing people more time to engage in politics and their local communities.

The announcements were made around the same time that flexible working rights were extended to all UK employees. NEF believe that the same could happen with a shorter working week, however admit that it would take time.

“Any move towards a shorter working week would need to be implemented gradually, alongside efforts to strengthen wage levels across the economy,” said Anna Coote, head of social policy at NEF. “But as long as that’s understood, there are clear benefits for environment, economy and society.”

Photo title: Advocates of a shorter working week claim that it would help alleviate fatigue and reduce stress-related illness

Photo credit: © Rob Emes

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  • Karen

    A 4-hour working day + solid living wage + a strong citizens’ income (far more than current proposals of a CI meeting the state pension levels) would definitely work.

    There’s a lot of evidence that performance falls off after 4 hours for those in non-manual jobs, and after 5 hours for those in manual jobs. It would make child care easier to arrange, allow for more time to work on home and community projects, and provide far more work opportunities for those currently employed.

    It would demand huge investment in the creation of an egalitarian society, particularly in terms of fair pay and education – we’d need far more doctors, nurses and paramedics in the population, for example. And, having seen how brutally and stupidly doctors are pushed during training, and knowing that in the US, for example, the third highest cause of death is prescription and treatment error, I think we’d all be better off with more doctors working sane hours.

    Carlos Slim’s suggestion is not just a nightmare for child care. It’s a nightmare for general public health. To cram so many hours into a shorter week is insanity. What we need is shorter hours in general, with the safety nets of true living wages and a citizens’ income so that no-one HAS to work more than 4 hours a day, 4-5 days a week, to not only survive but to thrive.

  • Clare

    Hahaha, I’m not sure he’s suggesting you cram all you 40 hours into 4 days instead of 5, that would be madness. No, instead you would work your normal daily hours (8) but for only 4 days and still get a living wage, which is do able. Childcare would never be an issue because you’ll be there for them yourself. Having an extra day at home is better for your health and mental wellbeing. It allows more people to work so unemployment would improve. I also think maybe there should be a cap on maximum earnings too and everyone should be able to afford to live comfortably on 4 working days. It can be done, there is enough money out there to make this work as long as it is shared out fairly.

  • Karen

    According to this Guardian report, he’s talking about 10-11 hour days, 3 days a week. I know our work hours have been creeping up, but 10-11 hours as standard is Not Good.

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