The standard work week in Britain is 38/40 hours long. In America, China and many other countries it’s even longer. We spend so much of our time in paid work because a) we need/want the money, b) our employer might not offer part-time or flexi-time roles and c) our economy is set up to maximise production. Production in the widest sense of the term, of course. We’re not just talking about factory work here – ‘production’ can mean production of the service you’re paid to deliver. Programming, counselling, cold-calling, whatever. You could also add d) because you love your job so much you don’t want to do anything else except sleep and commute. However, although it’s usual to feel at least some level of job satisfaction or even passion for your work, most fully employed people do find themselves rushing around, not having time for a social life or hobbies and being stressed and tired.
There are so many reasons why a shorter work week would be beneficial to our economy, our society and the environment.
- It would reduce unemployment. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, reduced working hours would create more jobs as the available work would effectively be shared among more employees. As we know, unemployment causes a multitude of problems so reducing it would go a long way towards reducing public costs and allowing people to lead wealthier and more fulfilled lives.
- If accompanied by appropriate policies, it could slow down economic growth. If you’ve never heard of post-growth economics then I appreciate this point won’t make much sense – if you’re interested please see the Post-Growth section of this blog or this summary of the concept. For those of you familiar with steady-state or post-growth economics, you’ll understand that optimization rather than maximisation of productivity would keep profits at a healthy, steady level. On the larger scale, this would encourage economic balance and stability rather than the boom-and-bust scenario which is inevitable when chasing the impossible dream of indefinite growth.
- It would make people happier. Quite simply, most people would like some time off! While still holding down a steady job, people would be able to spend more quality time with their kids, get their social life back on track, even engage in a fun hobby or two. Particularly driven individuals might choose to spend the extra time learning more about their field of expertise or even volunteering.
- It would reduce costs to the NHS. Overworking is one of the top causes of stress, and the vast majority of illnesses are caused or exacerbated by stress. Working an 8 hour day plus another hour or two travelling to and from work leaves precious little time for making and eating a healthy home cooked meal, exercising, and getting enough sleep. These three things are vital for good health so making the time for them is logically going to lead to healthier people and take the strain off doctors, psychiatrists and hospitals.
- It would be good for the environment. Apart from the effect on economic growth, a shorter work week would also allow people the time to engage in greener activities that overworked people can’t seem to find the time for. For example: walking or cycling to work, cooking from scratch, gardening, repairing things instead or buying replacements, playing with your kids instead of fobbing them off with extra toys, making handmade gifts… All these activities are common sense in a decarbonising world, but they require that definitely renewable and yet scarce resource: time.
- It’s politically viable. So many people would love this policy; it could be a real vote winner. This is particularly advantageous because many things that’d be great for sustainability just aren’t that popular. Like getting people to stop driving cars and buying tonnes of consumer goods, for example. We don’t need a paradigm shift or an attitude adjustment or a revolution to agree to a 4 day week – this could be implemented now, and it would help lay the groundwork for the transition to a steady-state society. My second point on this list about slowing down economic growth could be left out if need be, as the other benefits are reason enough to consider this policy.
I think it’s important to note that nef concedes that a work-time reduction should be accompanied with other policies, namely raising the minimum wage and progressive taxation. It would be nonsensical to introduce a 4 day week without any other changes because although high earners would likely benefit hugely from the time off, workers on minimum or low wages would be pushed into poverty. The work-life balance is all about people engaging in enough paid work to earn a decent living, while leaving enough time for the most important things in life: family, friends and personal development. It is definitely not about stopping people meeting their needs through work. If we’re seriously considering a shorter, healthier, more sustainable work week, then we need to make sure the minimum wage is high enough for 30 (or however many) hours to equate to a decent living wage.
In that case, we could be taking a huge step towards sustainability and boosting wellbeing, public health and social cohesion all in one fell swoop.