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Work less, live more: 10 arguments for a shorter working week

As UK firms launch a four-day week trial, we look at the benefits of working less, from strengthening families to improving equality

As UK firms launch a four-day week trial, we look at the benefits of working less, from strengthening families to improving equality

The extra bank holiday in the UK to mark the Queen’s jubilee has invariably led to calls for it to be made permanent. 

There are usually eight public holidays each year in England and Wales (Scotland gets nine, Northern Ireland 10), which is a bit stingy compared to other nations. Finland gets 12, one for every month.

But while the debate around extra bank holidays rumbles on, some nations (and forward thinking firms) are rendering the conversation irrelevant – by making four-day weeks the norm.

Working fewer hours on full pay might sound too good to be true, but for some UK employees that has just become reality.

A pilot project to assess the merits of a shorter working week has launched this week. It is being run by academics at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Canon is among the firms to have signed up.

The pandemic has forced many of us to reassess our relationship with work, and prompted a growing number of countries to flirt with a four-day week.   

Four-day week

Working more doesn’t make you more productive, studies suggest. Image: Campaign Creators

Spain is leading the charge. Its government is trialling the idea with firms interested in changing things up. “With the four-day work week, we’re launching into the real debate of our times,” said Iñigo Errejón of the leftwing Más País party, which proposed the idea. “It’s an idea whose time has come.”

Scotland has also pledged a trial, while some corporations have launched their own pilots. Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company, among them. 

Dutch author Rutger Bregman is one advocate of a shorter working week. “For some of us, the line is blurred between work and what we love, so our lives wouldn’t change much,” he told Positive News. “But for many, there is a clear distinction between what’s work and the rest of life. I think we need to work less in certain jobs in order to do more of what matters and what is meaningful and important to society.”

With the four-day work week, we’re launching into the real debate of our times

Working fewer hours doesn’t necessarily equate to a reduction in productivity. In fact, according to a 2017 trial of a six-hour working day in Sweden, the opposite is true. Despite failing to convince everyone, those behind the Swedish trial claimed that its benefits outweighed the costs.

Daniel Bernmar, a politician who helped bring about the experiment at a retirement home in Gothenburg, told Positive News that the results presented “the complete opposite narrative of the need to work more and to work harder”.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has long supported the concept of shorter working weeks. Here, principal fellow at the thinktank, Anna Coote, suggests 10 reasons why it could be good for society.

1. A smaller carbon footprint

Countries with shorter average hours tend to have a smaller ecological footprint. As a nation, the UK is currently consuming well beyond its share of natural resource. Moving out of the fast lane would take us away from the convenience-led consumption that is damaging our environment, and leave time for living more sustainably.

2. A stronger economy

If handled properly, a move towards a shorter working week would improve social and economic equality, easing our dependence on debt-fuelled growth – key ingredients of a robust economy. It would be competitive, too: the Netherlands and Germany have shorter work weeks than Britain and the US, yet their economies are as strong or stronger.

3. Better employees

Those who work less tend to be more productive hour-for-hour than those regularly pushing themselves beyond the 40 hours per week point. They are less prone to sickness and absenteeism and make up a more stable and committed workforce.

4. Lower unemployment

Average working hours may have spiralled, but they are not spread equally across our economy – just as some find themselves working all hours of the day and night, others struggle to find work at all. A shorter working week would help to redistribute paid and unpaid time more evenly across the population.

5. Improved wellbeing

Giving everybody more time to spend as they choose would greatly reduce stress levels and improve overall wellbeing, as well as mental and physical health. Working less would help us all move away from the current path of living to work, working to earn and earning to consume. It would help us all to reflect on and appreciate the things that we truly value in life.

Four-day week

Countries with shorter working weeks have smaller ecological footprints, according to NEF. Image: Guy Bowden

6. More equality between men and women

Women currently spend more time than men doing unpaid work. Moving towards a shorter working week as the ‘norm’ would help change attitudes about gender roles, promote more equal shares of paid and unpaid work, and help revalue jobs traditionally associated with women’s work.

7. Higher quality, affordable childcare

The high demand for childcare stems partly from a culture of long working hours which has spiralled out of control. A shorter working week would help mothers and fathers better balance their time, reducing the costs of full-time childcare. As well as bringing down the cost of childcare, working fewer hours would give parents more time to spend with their children. This opportunity for more activities, experiences and two-way teaching and learning would have benefits for mothers and fathers, as well as their children.

8. More time for families, friends and neighbours

Spending less time in paid work would enable us to spend more time with and care for each other – our parents, children, friends and neighbours – and to value and strengthen all the relationships that make our lives worthwhile and help to build a stronger society.

9. Making more of later life

A shorter and more flexible working week could make the transition from employment to retirement much smoother, spread over a longer period of time. People could reduce their hours gradually over a decade or more. Shifting suddenly from long hours to no hours of paid work can be traumatic, often causing illness and early death.

10. A stronger democracy

We’d all have more time to participate in local activities, to find out what’s going on around us, to engage in politics, locally and nationally, to ask questions and to campaign for change.

This is an update of an article originally published on 19 April 2017. The original version of the 10 reasons section of this article was first published by the New Economics Foundation.

Main image: Alistair Macrobert

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