Opinion

Working to live not living to work: Why it's time for a four-day week

Post Covid-19, it's in all of our interests to build a world where we work less to live better, writes Joe Ryle from the 4 Day Week Campaign

Across the world the idea of moving to a four-day working week has reemerged with new found popularity and momentum since the Covid-19 pandemic.

In May, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern spoke about the four-day week as a key way in which the country’s economy can recover from the crisis and the Spanish government are considering a national subsidy to help firms make the switch.

Closer to home, members of the Scottish National Party (SNP) have voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Scottish Government exploring the idea. The Welsh Future Generations Commissioner is looking at how pilot schemes could be introduced in Wales as well.

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For the majority of British workers, there are signs that the overnight shift to working from home back in March has perhaps opened people’s eyes to rethinking how we work in the longer-term. Polling carried out by the 4 Day Week Campaign in July showed that more than two-thirds of British workers support a four-day week, including 57 per cent of Conservative voters.

Any move to shorter working hours will mean pivoting away from the 9 to 5, five days a week model which most British workers still orientate their lives around.

It’s important to remember that this outdated but still dominant model of working is based on a 1940s industrial economy. We’re really long overdue a change when it comes to working patterns.

Despite major technological advances and a new era of automation, working hours in the UK have barely reduced at all since the 1980s. British workers depressingly now put in the longest full-time working hours compared to any EU country and at the same time we are lagging behind our European neighbours in productivity.

As a result, more than two-thirds are stressed or overworked in their job and this was before the pandemic, which we know has only exacerbated mental health issues.

At its heart the question of reducing working hours comes back to a fundamental divide: does the economy exist to improve people’s lives or do we simply exist to improve the economy?

Some people point towards the growing numbers of unemployed people as a reason why implementing a four-day week across the economy right now isn’t realistic. But in fact, taking a slightly longer view of history shows us that shorter working hours have often been implemented in times of economic crisis.

It was in the years following the Second World War that the 8 hour day became the norm. The simple premise being that in times of recession, shorter working hours can be intuitively used to spread the work that still exists more equally across the economy between the unemployed and the overworked.

At the 4 Day Week Campaign, we argue that a four-day week with no reduction in pay will be good for the economy, good for workers and good for the environment. This is backed up by research which shows that workers would be immeasurably happier and that where companies have already made the switch or are experimenting with trials, productivity has always been boosted.

Furthermore, a permanent switch to a four-day week would reduce UK carbon emissions by 117 thousand tons of CO2 per week (the equivalent to removing over 1.3 million cars off the road annually), according to a study by the think-tank Autonomy.

Post Covid-19, it’s in all of our interests to build a world where we work less to live better. If this pandemic has taught us anything, let it be that it’s time for change when it comes to the world of work. 

Joe Ryle is campaign officer for the 4 Day Week Campaign and a former Labour Party adviser.

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