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Enthusiasm for a 4-day working week is gathering steam – and for good reason. But a healthier work-life balance won’t be achieved by cutting official hours alone. Without addressing endemic low pay, the affront of technology on our leisure time and unwarranted employer expectations, our society will continue to burn the midnight oil.

Making Thursday the new Friday

As a country, we work too much. Full-time employees in the UK spend more time toiling than any other EU nation. An RSA/Populus survey in 2017 revealed that a third of people often put in 'excessive hours’ at work, while the TUC estimate 3.3 million employees regularly work more than 48 hours a week.

The consequences are severe. Relationships suffer, depression is more likely and physical health deteriorates. Stress accounted for 37 percent of all work-related ill health cases in 2015/16. The risk of stroke jumps by a third among individuals who work more than 55 hours a week, while the likelihood of heart disease increases by 13 percent.

Enter proponents of a 4-day working week. In the last two years, enthusiasm for the idea has gathered pace. Advocates range from left leaning academics (Alex Williams) to celebrity entrepreneurs (Richard Branson) through to senior politicians (Scottish Labour’s Richard Leonard). (Although the New Economics Foundation has pushed the debate on working hours for several years).

It is easy to see the allure. A shorter working week would leave more time to pursue passions, care for loved ones, recuperate, delve into learning, exercise and stay fit, volunteer and become more active in politics. Or simply doss. The point is that it’s up to you.

Employers have as much to gain. Workers may well be more productive. US academic Alex Soojung-Kim Pang reckons that the performance of most workers deteriorates after 4 hours in a day, suggesting that our time at work could be cut without unduly affecting performance. Happier workers could also mean lower staff turnover.

In the few places where a 4-day working week has been trialled, evidence is encouraging. A care home in Gothenburg, Sweden, found that a shorter working week led to higher satisfaction among its nurses and a 10 percent drop in sick leave. Residents felt they received better care, with nurses that were more alert and willing to run social activities.

Monday will still be Monday

So far, so sensible. But there are multiple catches to be aware of.

First, it’s not entirely clear who foots the bill. Is it employers or workers? In the case of the Swedish care home, nurses were paid the same salary despite working 4 days, with the city authority stumping up the cash to cover lost shifts. This may be one reason why the scheme didn’t continue beyond its 23-month pilot.

In other cases, the assumption is that workers would take a pay cut. This is the case for German automobile workers, whose union – IG Metall – earlier this year secured the right to a temporary 28-hour working week. Contrary to the impression given by some media reports, this deal will see a like-for-like reduction in salary for those who take up the offer – not fewer hours with the same pay.

No doubt many workers will eke out savings while staying at home. Less money will be shelled out on transport, food and childcare costs. But what would a 4-day working week mean for the millions already on a knife edge? Real average wages are still below their pre-crisis level in 2008, while a third of workers say they ‘just about manage’ to make ends meet each month.

Second, the notion of a 4-day working week doesn’t gel neatly with modern working practices. Self-employment has grown by 40 percent since 2000, and now 1 in 6 workers answer to themselves. Gig work has expanded in tandem. Today, 1 million workers find jobs on an ad hoc basis through online platforms like Uber, Deliveroo and UpWork. Precisely how a 4-day working week functions for contingent workers is unclear.

Technology further complicates matters. Digital devices pervade our lives and encourage – in the words of academic Phoebe Moore – an ‘always on’ and ‘hyper employed’ culture. If we already check emails and use tablets and laptops to complete work outside of official hours, what good would reducing those official hours do?

Yet the greatest challenge to a 4-day working week is that it does little to address the quality of work. “Monday would still be Monday”, as Mark Rice-Oxley put it, even if workers have more time to rest and recuperate. Long commutes, inconsiderate managers and stressful work environments would be undiminished.

Make the 5-day working week great again

Advocates of a 4-day working week rightfully point out that we are working ourselves into the ground. But the remedy they offer must meet the needs of a modern labour market – not a bygone era where full time employment was the norm, technology had yet to colonise our leisure time, and work was of a kind that could be contained at the office doors and factory gates.  

And as ever, money matters. Without real income growth, the utopian ideal of a shorter working week will remain a pipe dream. It is no coincidence that experiments in cutting hours have happened in countries where incomes are rising. Real wage growth in Germany averaged 0.81 percent between 2006 and 2017 – a pace that has far exceeded the UK’s.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t aim for a 4-day working week. We should. But for now, our efforts might be better spent reclaiming the leisure time that was secured over the past two centuries, as well as pushing for more flexible working practices.

A good place to start would be to remove ‘expectation clauses’ within employee contracts, which state that workers are expected (read: obliged) to work beyond official hours. Another would be for companies to do as Daimler has done in Germany and shut down email exchanges when workers are on holiday. At the least, workers should be paid for the extra hours they put in. If figures from the TUC are correct, a scandalous 2.1bn hours of overtime went unpaid last year.

As dull as these interventions sound, they are at least achievable in the short term. Let’s continue to push for a 4-day working week, but not forget that the 5-day one already hangs in the balance.

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