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

As Spain flirts with a four-day week, we look at the benefits of working less, from strengthening families to improving gender equality

As Spain flirts with a four-day week, we look at the benefits of working less, from strengthening families to improving gender equality

The four-day working week is poised to become a reality for employees at some firms in Spain, after the government there agreed to launch a pilot project for companies that are interested in experimenting with the idea.

Details of the trial are still being fleshed out, including how many firms will be involved and how long the trial will last. However, the government is reportedly considering covering the costs that are incurred by participating firms (if there are any) as they switch to a shorter working week in September. Employee pay will be unaffected. 

“With the four-day work week (32 hours), 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.”

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The pandemic has seen a mindset shift around work-life balance – and not just for employees. Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company, announced in November that it would experiment with a four-day working week in New Zealand. Staff there will remain on the same pay as part of the year-long trial.  

Dutch author and journalist Rutger Bregman is among those advocating 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 in an earlier interview. “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.”

Four-day week

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

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.

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