The Case for a Reduced Work Week

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By
Adrian McMahon
Published
21 February 2020
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by: Adrian McMahon
Future of Work

An idea that provides more time, greater equality and increased productivity.

The recent United Kingdom (UK) election provided many talking points for not only all involved, but also for those observing from Australia. There is one item, however, that will not receive the attention of some of the other issues, although it could be bigger than any victory, defeat or electoral shift. It is an idea that could give people more time, create greater economic and social equality in society, and increase workplace productivity. It is the idea of a reduced work week.

UK Labour pledged to reduce the work week to 32 hours (with no less pay) within 10 years, saying “we should work to live, not live to work”.[1] While Labour lost the election, its support of a reduced work week has put the idea firmly on the political agenda in the UK.

Reducing the work week is not a new idea. In the early 20th century, when the average work week in developed nations was reduced from around 60 to 40 hours, it was expected that further decreases would occur over time. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes estimated that technological change and productivity improvements would make a 15-hour work week possible within a couple of generations.[2]

 It is also not a fringe idea. Other notable people throughout history to predict continuing reductions in working hours include United States (US) Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, British philosopher John Stuart Mill, and playwright George Bernard Shaw. In 1956, then US Vice President Richard Nixon promised Americans they would only have to work four days “in the not too distant future”.[3] Yet for generation after generation, there has been little to no decrease.

More time for employees

The most obvious benefit of a reduced work week is that it would provide employees with more time. This extra time could be used to do any number of things, such as spending time with friends and family, pursuing hobbies, travelling, shopping, undertaking education and training, or engaging in a dream job, a cause or a passion project. All of those things that are currently second place to our jobs - the activities that we try to cram into the few remaining hours left in our week outside of work, if we are not too tired to do them.
 

Greater economic and social equality

While there has been no decrease in work hours in recent decades, there have been substantial productivity gains in the developed world, primarily due to technological progress. Not only has this failed to reduce the number of work hours, but it has also failed to greatly increase wages. For the average worker, that is. The US-based Economic Policy Institute found that, from 1978 to 2013, average wages increased by 10%, whereas CEO salaries increased by a whopping 937%.[4]

So, it is easy to see where the benefits of the productivity gains have gone, and the result is grossly lopsided in fairness. To better balance the benefits from decades of productivity gains, employees are long overdue to both receive higher wages and share these benefits in the form of time. This would help to reduce the growing inequality between the rich (the CEOs) in society and the many (the average worker).

A reduced work week would also create a greater balance between those who are overworked and those who are unemployed and underemployed. In sectors that require around-the-clock work - such as healthcare, retail, hospitality and construction - more jobs would need to be created to fill the shifts across the week. This would result in a fairer spread of employment across the working-able population. As a result, it may assist in reducing the number of Australians living below the poverty line, which is shamefully around three million people (13% of the population), including 739,000 children (17% of the child population).[5]

Further, forecasts that increased automation in many sectors will replace human-driven jobs in the coming years means we will need to spread the available jobs across the population. Otherwise, unemployment and underemployment will grow and grow.

A better spread of employment would also improve gender equality, as women are currently over-represented among the unemployed, underemployed and part-time workers.[6] Reducing the work week would also provide men with the opportunity to spend more time at home, to more greatly assist with the various types of unpaid work that have historically fallen to women, such as domestic chores and raising children.

Increased employee productivity

An instinctive response to the idea of a reduced work week is that it would negatively affect the output of Monday to Friday businesses and organisations. After all, more hours at the office means more work is achieved, right? Actually, wrong. Numerous trials around the world are providing increasing evidence that reduced hours make employees more productive:

  • New Zealand trust management company Perpetual Guardian ran a four-day week trial in 2018. It announced a 20% increase in worker productivity and a 45% increase in employee work-life balance, and subsequently made the policy permanent.[7]
  • Microsoft Japan conducted a four-day week trial in August 2019. It reported a 40% boost in worker productivity, reduced electricity costs by 23% and printed 60% less paper. The trial also focused the company on increasing efficiency through measures such as slashing meetings from 60 minutes to 30 minutes and capping meeting attendees at five people.[8]
  • The UK-based Henley Business School conducted a study in early 2019 in which 250 firms participated in a four-day week. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of these businesses reported improvements in staff productivity, and collectively the firms saved an estimated £92 billion a year (A$177 billion). The employees were happier, less stressed, took fewer days off ill, and 40% of them reported that they used the extra time to upskill.[9]

These companies are following in the tradition of famous businesses from almost a century ago:

  • In 1926, US carmaker Henry Ford realised that fewer hours led to increased productivity and became the first to introduce a five-day work week. He said leisure time was a “cold business fact”, and that a well-rested worker was a more effective worker. He also noted that it gave his employees more time to buy and drive his cars.[10]
  • In 1930, US cornflake creator W.K. Kellogg introduced a six-hour workday at his factory in Battle Creek, Michigan. This change slashed the accident rate by 41% and the employees became noticeably more productive. Kellogg was able to hire an additional 300 employees and pay employees as much for six hours as he formerly paid for eight.[11]

Part of greater productivity is having employees who are both in attendance and healthy at work. A UK Deloitte study found that poor mental health costs employers £33 to 42 billion a year (A$64 to 81 billion).[12] The UK’s Health and Safety Executive found that the greatest cause of sick absences from work is work-related stress (54%).[13] By reducing sickness and mental health issues at work, employers boost productivity and therefore make and save money.

Potential health benefits

With more time, many of us would do more of what we love in life. This would have incalculable flow-on effects. We would be happier and less stressed, which would make us healthier and able to think and act more calmly and clearly. We would then likely be kinder to and more caring of others, which in turn would be reciprocated, creating a societal cycle of generosity and support. The possibilities are exciting.

There are of course some of us who love our jobs, but within this cohort there would be many who would still choose to spend less time at work. After all, work cannot be the total sum of happiness in life. Whether we like our job or not, we would all benefit from more time outside of work to enjoy the many other facets of life. Reducing the number of employees who are overworked also leads to fewer workplace injuries and accidents.[14] 

A greater spread of employment throughout society would lead to a reduction in the various negative health effects associated with both those who are overworked and those who are unemployed and underemployed, such as stress, anxiety and depression.[15] 

With more time, many of us would also increase our care of others, such as children, elderly parents, and ill and disabled family members and friends. The benefits of this increased time caring for one another are potentially enormous. 

For example, a child’s development could be enhanced through more time with their parents. For a pre-school aged child with two parents who currently both work full-time, the child likely spends five days of the week at childcare and only two with its parents. If full-time became four days, each parent could spend an extra day each week with their child, meaning the child spends four days out of seven with a parent - double the current two.

Implementation must allow for flexibility and be carefully calibrated

Flexibility is key to introducing a reduced work week. Small businesses have different requirements from corporations, and employees have various methods for achieving a good work-life balance. If the agreed full-time hours are 32 hours per week, employees must be able to decide (in consultation with their employer) whether they complete these hours over four or five days. Annual leave days could also be factored into the reduction. This flexibility would allow for considerations such as having school-aged dependents and commuting long distances. 

Such flexibility is already commonplace for many jobs, with many employees having flexible hours and working from home. UK Labour recognised the need for flexibility when it announced its policy, saying employers and unions would work together to reduce hours specific to their sector.[16]

A reduced work week is easier for some sectors than others. The around-the-clock sectors would likely need financial support as they would be forced to create more jobs to fill the shifts across the week. Although, if a reduced work week makes people healthier and leads to people spending more time caring for those in need, then this would reduce the costs of and burden on the health and care industries.

It would also be important to ensure employee groups like casual-paid employees are not left behind. They would need to be supported to keep them financially in line with full-time employees who would now be getting paid more per hour for their reduced hours. This would ensure that all citizens receive the benefits of a society-wide reduced work week.

Australia’s future could see a reduced work week

While the idea of a reduced work week is now on the political agenda in the UK, Australia is a long way behind. Before the May 2019 Federal Election, the Greens committed to establish an independent Future of Work Commission that would investigate, among other things, “a model for tackling underemployment by moving to a four day work week without loss of pay for full time workers in Australia”.[17] This is promising, but the Greens remain a minor party in Australian politics, and this idea was hardly a headline Greens policy. 

It is time the two major parties started seriously examining the idea of reducing the work week. It would not be an easy process to implement; however, if it provides employees with more time, creates greater economic and social equality in society, increases workplace productivity, and could produce enormous health benefits, then it has the makings of a positive, multi-generational policy.

 

[1] BBC, ‘Labour Party conference: McDonnell promises 32-hour working week’, 23 September 2019, bbc.com/news/uk-politics-49798357.

[2] The Conversation, Anthony Veal, ‘It’s time to put the 15-hour work week back on the agenda’, 25 December 2018, theconversation.com/its-time-to-put-the-15-hour-work-week-back-on-the-agenda-106754.

[3] Rutger Bregman, ‘Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There’, 2014, pages 128-132.

[4] Economic Policy Institute, Alyssa Davis and Lawrence Mishel, ‘CEO Pay Continues to Rise as Typical Workers are Paid Less’, 12 June 2014, epi.org/publication/ceo-pay-continues-to-rise/.

[5] Australian Council of Social Service, ‘Poverty in Australia’, 2015, acoss.org.au/poverty/.

[6] Australian Government Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, ‘A statistical snapshot of women in the Australian workforce’, 8 March 2019, employment.gov.au/newsroom/statistical-snapshot-women-australian-workforce.

[7] The Guardian, Eleanor Ainge Roy, ‘“No downside”: New Zealand firm adopts four-day week after successful trial’, 2 October 2018,  theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/02/no-downside-new-zealand-firm-adopts-four-day-week-after-successful-trial.

[8] NPR, Bill Chappell, ‘4-Day Workweek Boosted Workers’ Productivity by 40%, Microsoft Japan Says’, 4 November 2019,  npr.org/2019/11/04/776163853/microsoft-japan-says-4-day-workweek-boosted-workers-productivity-by-40.

[9] University of Reading Henley Business School, ‘Four-day week pays off for UK business’, 3 July 2019, henley.ac.uk/news/2019/four-day-week-pays-off-for-uk-business.

[10] Rutger Bregman, ‘Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There’, 2014, pages 131-132.

[11] Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, ‘Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day’, 1996, page 35.

[12] Deloitte, ‘Mental health and employers: The case for investment’, October 2017, www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/public-sector/deloitte-uk-mental-health-employers-monitor-deloitte-oct-2017.pdf.

[13] United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive, ‘Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2019’, 30 October 2019, hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf.

[14] The Conversation, Shainaz Firfiray, ‘Long hours at the office could be killing you - the case for a shorter working week’, 19 June 2019, theconversation.com/long-hours-at-the-office-could-be-killing-you-the-case-for-a-shorter-working-week-116369.

[15] The Conversation, Shainaz Firfiray, ‘Long hours at the office could be killing you - the case for a shorter working week’, 19 June 2019, theconversation.com/long-hours-at-the-office-could-be-killing-you-the-case-for-a-shorter-working-week-116369.

[16] BBC, ‘Labour Party conference: McDonnell promises 32-hour working week’, 23 September 2019, bbc.com/news/uk-politics-49798357.

[17] Australian Greens, ‘Reshaping the Future of Work’, 2019, greens.org.au/sites/default/files/2019-05/Greens%202019%20Policy%20Platform%20-%20Preparing%20for%20the%20Future%20of%20Work%20%28May%202019%29.pdf.

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