In the spirit of May bank holidays, Nadia Whittome considers a four day work week...
There are many reasons to be excited for May. After what felt like an endless winter, the sun is finally starting to come out, and picnic season has begun. What makes it even better is that we’re getting more time to enjoy it: This month we have three bank holidays, which, for most people (although sadly not everyone), means three four-day working weeks.
Now, imagine what you would do if you had an extra day off every week of the year, without losing any pay. Most of us would probably choose to spend more time with family and friends. Many people would appreciate the ability to enjoy more art and culture - you could finally see the play you read about in LeftLion and have been meaning to watch. Maybe you’d hop on a train and explore the country. Perhaps you’d learn a language, set up a small business on the side, or even write a novel? Or simply catch up on sleep. The possibilities are endless.
Is a four-day workweek achievable? A growing number of people believe it is. In February, results were published of the world’s largest four-day week trial. Over six months, 61 UK companies employing 2,900 workers volunteered to give their staff more time off for the same pay. The pilot turned out to be a resounding success. Revenue increased rather than fell, while staff wellbeing improved dramatically. Employees reported better physical and mental health, and significantly less stress and burnout. Dads spent more time looking after their kids, helping reduce the gender gap in childcare responsibilities. Of the employers who took part - which ranged from large financial companies to a fish and chip shop - 92% decided to continue with the policy after the trial.
These positive results confirm the findings of similar experiments in countries including Iceland and the US. A four-day or 32-hour week is being embraced by a growing number of businesses around the world. It seems like an idea whose time has come.
At first, it may sound too good to be true. But the same was once said about the weekend. Throughout the nineteenth century, most people in Britain and other industrialised countries worked 60 hours or more every week. The Early Closing Association campaigned for free Saturday afternoons, while many factory workers adopted the practice of Saint Mondays - taking Mondays off - despite opposition from their bosses. Trade unions fought tooth-and-nail for a formalised reduction in working hours, often backed by religious groups. It was only in the 1930s that the two-day weekend became the norm.
Despite any challenges it may pose, the case for a four-day week is too strong to be dismissed. It’s time to take inspiration from those who won us the weekend, and campaign for our right to have a break
As automation increased productivity and reduced the demand for human labour, working hours were falling. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes speculated that his grandchildren would be working 15-hour weeks. In the 1960s and ‘70s, many people predicted that technological progress would soon create a “leisure society”. However, since then, this trend has stalled. Further improvements in productivity have largely translated into higher profits for big business, instead of more free time for workers. When new labour-saving technologies are developed, people worry about losing their jobs, rather than expecting the benefits to spread to everyone. Burnout is on the rise, and overwork is putting a strain on our health and relationships. No wonder more and more workers are demanding better.
A four-day week isn’t something that will happen overnight. In some sectors, working time can be cut down more easily than in others. While plenty of office jobs could be done more efficiently, by less-tired staff in four days, in some workplaces it would require a more creative approach, such as automating or cutting out non-essential tasks. In others, including many public services, it would be necessary to create more jobs. In turn, it could improve staff retention, reduce the number of sick days, and lower the risk of dangerous mistakes. I know I’d rather be operated on by a well-rested doctor than an exhausted one.
A four-day week also doesn’t have to look the same for everyone: In workplaces that have to stay open all week, team members can work different days, or do shorter days instead. Any plans to bring down working hours need to be developed with the workers, who themselves know best how their time could be used most effectively.
Despite any challenges it may pose, the case for a four-day week is too strong to be dismissed. It’s time to take inspiration from those who won us the weekend, and campaign for our right to have a break. We all deserve to have time to care for one another, to learn, play, create, and explore. After all, there’s so much more to life than work, and we’d all be better off in a society that recognises this.
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