The four-day week could transform our lives and our economy

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Whether in an office, factory or shop, work is where most of us spend the majority of our lives. Trade union struggles of the past have led to dramatic reductions in our working hours from the early days of industrial capitalism, but as the nature of work changes in the 21st century, should how much we work change too? Organiser at the 4dayweek Campaign, Aidan Harper, explains his vision for a new work/life settlement. 

What’s the problem? 

There is a multifaceted crisis in work. Firstly, work is unevenly distributed. Although we have record low levels of unemployment, what those figures conceal are high levels of underemployment – people who don’t have enough work and who want to work more hours. We see that in the rise of precarious jobs and zero-hour contracts. 

On the other hand, you have a huge amount of people who are what you would call overworked, who report that they’re stressed and want to work less. This leads us to the social crisis in work. The single biggest cause of sick leave is work-related stress, and it costs the economy tens of billions a year. But that’s just an economic factor – the impact on the individual is traumatic.

Work in its current form also has environmental ramifications. The two most energy intensive things you can do on a day-to-day basis are eating and commuting. Our busy schedules mean that we often eat things that use up lots of energy- like packaged or frozen food products- and drive to work because we don’t have enough time to cycle or walk.

What’s the solution? 

A four-day week. We need to balance out what good, stable, secure work there is available, and help eliminate underemployment and hopefully the low-paid, insecure work that it’s associated with. Theoretically, by reducing the amount of days employees work, room would be made for others to be employed. It would also hopefully create more environmentally friendly consumption habits.

If you’re time poor, you tend to want to spend that time doing things that give you a quick hit, like watching telly, rather than perhaps pursuing activities such as reading, hobbies, building relationships with your kids, etc. But we also need to remember that work doesn’t have to be so central to our existence. A four-day week would hopefully give people the time to get involved in other activities, and give them other things they can measure themselves against. 

The central aim of this campaign is to bring time and how we spend it to the centre of the political ground. Time is a resource, and how we spend it is a point of political contestation. Historically it has been, but we’ve kind of forgotten about that. 

But isn’t work good for us?

For 99 per cent of people in 99 per cent of history, work has been a means to an end. That end was living your life, raising your kids, going to church, having feasts, having sex, making music – the things that make life worth living. What our current work ethic does is create the idea that work is all there is to our lives. You sit behind a desk, try and look good to your boss so that you get a raise. There are countless stories of people who work themselves into the ground and are on the surface very happy, successful individuals, and yet you speak to them and they have a failed marriage and no time time to see their kids. There was an interview with a palliative nurse a few years ago in which she listed the top five regrets people had on their deathbeds and for men it was that they spent too much time in work. What could be more important in your life than how you spend your time, and if by the end of your life you regret that you spent the majority of your time in a place that you didn’t like, there’s something deeply unsettling about that. 

What’s the business case for a four-day week? 

A number of small companies have already done it, and the results they’ve had – along with other examples internationally – are that a shorter working week increases worker wellbeing and productivity, as well as decreasing staff turnover. For more creative industries, it gives employees what you’d call a fallow period of time between work to come up with more ideas. 

There is very much a business case here. Turnover is killing companies. It is so expensive, particularly in places like call centres where you have to train new employees, employ recruiters and take into account the time it takes for people to get into and understand the role.

The key thing you’re trying to attack here is a kind of work ethic, which leads to presenteeism, which again is bad for companies as it results in more stress and more staff leave. With the amount of work days lost as a result of stress, there is a massive degree of self-interest for businesses to do this. 

What do you envision a world with less work to look like? 

People would have higher levels of wellbeing and have more time to do things they really value in their life. Traditional notions of what counts as work would hopefully be broken down, and there would be more of a focus on the unpaid labour which is broadly done by women, and more being done to redress that imbalance.

One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, but there’s clearly a correlation between countries with fewer hours worked and gender equality. Like all these forms of economic thinking, its about moving away from just using GDP as a be all and end all, and thinking more widely about how an economy supports a good life. We believe a four-day week is key to creating that kind of economy. 

If you have a utopian idea that needs to be heard, why don’t you get in touch? Send an email to [email protected]