Work: How Much Is Too Much?

June 10, 2022, 2:52 PM GMT+0

So how was it for you? The long weekend I mean. I’m assuming you didn’t spend the whole of it glued to the box watching the jubilee celebrations or organising your very own street party. But whatever you did my next question is still relevant. How do you fancy the idea of a long weekend every week? In other words: working four days a week instead of five. That’s what is being proposed. Indeed, a trial has already begun and it will last for six months. It’s the biggest international study into working patterns there’s ever been. More than seventy countries are taking part including the UK, the United States and Australia.

The five-day week has been with us a long time. In the 19th century, staff were expected to work every day apart from Sunday. That lasted until 1934 when John Boot, the chairman of Boots the chemist, closed one of his factories on Saturdays and Sundays to avoid redundancies. It soon became the norm – not just here but in the United States too. Now there is a highly organised campaign that believes five days is one day too many. It’s called the 4 Day Week Global campaign and it’s building serious support. Research suggests that if four days does indeed become the norm most companies and employees would choose to work Monday to Thursday. Second favourite is Tuesday to Friday and some opt for taking Wednesdays off. But the key, says the campaign, is flexibility. The emphasis needs to be on cutting hours, rather than days.

The trial, which has been set up by the research institute Autonomy, will be run by academics from Oxford and Cambridge universities and experts at Boston College in the USA. It’s important to note that there will be no reductions in wages. Its object trial is to establish whether it’s possible for a work force to produce the same output if they’re only working 80% of the hours they would normally work.

Productivity is a major problem in the UK. Campaigners say the evidence from some four-day week pilots in other countries shows that productivity actually improved because workers spent less time in meetings and more time completing essential tasks. It also helps prevent burnout and depression, which costs companies millions of pounds a year in sickness pay.

The trial will look at how employees respond to having an extra day off, including factors such as stress, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use and travel. Joe O'Connor of 4 Day Week Global, said the UK is at the forefront of the shift to a shorter working week: “As we emerge from the pandemic, more and more companies are recognising that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge.”

The companies involved in the trial range from software developers and recruitment firms to charities, a fish and chip shop and the Pressure Drop Brewery in Tottenham, north London. Its founder, Sam Smith, says he wants to “improve the lives of our staff and be part of a progressive change in the world that will improve people's mental health and wellbeing." It’s a small company- just nine employees – and Mr Smith is hoping they will produce and package the same amount of beer as they do now, but in four days instead of five.

"I think it's about how you use your time," he says. "So when I talk about being productive I don't mean being faster at the task you're doing right now, it might be making use of the natural downtimes you have to prepare better for the following day." One of his office workers, Clare Doherty, says the trial is "fantastic" and part of a "natural progression of how we work...

It'll take those extra few minutes of scrolling through the internet out of your day because you have to be just that bit more focused to get what you need done in the time you have." Craig Carmichael, who works on the shop floor, thinks an extra rest day will motivate him to work harder. He told the BBC: "If I know I have to get stuff done in four days' time to enjoy that extra day, I think that will be a good incentive."

Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College, is the lead researcher on the trial. She says: "The basis of this movement is that there's activity going on in many workplaces, particularly white collar workplaces, that's low-productivity and that you can cut without harming the business. Sticking to a rigid, centuries-old, time-based system doesn't make sense. You can be 100% productive in 80% of the time in many workplaces, and companies adopting this around the world have shown that."

Inevitably, different economists hold different views. Julian Jessop, an independent economist and fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, says he’s in favour of the trial but is "sceptical" that it will show good results across the entire economy: "You'd have to become 25% more productive per day," he says. “There are some services where a four-day working week is not a realistic option. Doctors are already struggling to provide enough GP appointments - how can they see 25% more patients in a day? And it's difficult to see how a bar person can pull 25% more pints in a day too."

Schor herself accepts that a four-day week might not suit everyone and every profession, such as health care and teaching, where staff could already be over worked and under a great deal; of stress. But she believes that, even if workers are just 10% more productive, it can still make sense because it might lead to lower sickness rates, fewer staff leaving and make it easier to attract new recruits.

Girling Jones, a small construction recruitment firm in Exeter switched to a four-day week in January, and has also signed up to the trial. Productivity is up and so are profits according to the boss and company founder, Simon Girling. He says: : “When we came back from the pandemic, we did a lot of research into it and I couldn't see any downside. I'm not sure it would work across all industries or businesses but it's a really good opportunity for a lot of firms to change how they work and maybe improve. All our inputs - calls, meetings, interviews, are up... quite simply everyone is doing more in less time.” His employees seem to agree. One of them, Ellen Andreassen, says her sleep has improved through working a four-day week and she is “definitely more motivated.” Another says spending more time with his daughter is helping him save money on nursery fees: “The fact that you've got a day off in the middle of the week gives you more incentive to work harder towards that day off.”

Sceptics believe we don’t need an international trial to test whether a four-day week works or not. They point out that we’ve already seen a massive change in working hours and working practises. We called it working from home or WFH. It lasted throughout the covid lockdown and, in many sectors of industry and commerce as well as the civil service, survives to this day. It was the biggest change in working hours and working practises this country has ever experienced. The result was, to put it mildly, mixed. The millions who have had to wait on the phone for hours trying (and often failing) to talk to a human being instead of a recording have prayed for normal service to be restored. Small businesses in city centres who rely on office workers to patronise their gyms or pubs or snack bars have paid a large price for WFH. Yet more millions gave thanks for a vastly improved work/life balance. More time with the kids, less time commuting. Fewer pointless office meetings. It was, for them, bliss while it lasted.

Now we are, mostly, back at our desks. But does that mean we should return to the old days? Many will remember the time-and-motion experts brought in by companies a few decades ago to make workforces more efficient, but few took seriously the idea that we should reduce the working week from five to four days. Now it really is being taken seriously. Research shows that about ten million people would work fewer hours if they could. That’s one in three of the entire workforce. Unsurprising, you might say. Why wouldn’t we welcome less work and more play if we’re not going to see our salaries cut? More surprising, perhaps, is that three million of us would welcome a shorter working week even if that meant a lower income.

In 2019, the economist Lord Skidelsky, was asked by the Labour party to produce a report examining in some detail the whole question of work/life balance and its economic implications. He noted that collective bargaining in Germany had seen workers receive real wage increases and reductions in working hours in return for improved productivity. What did not work was a deal with the unions in France for a compulsory working week of no more than 35 hours.

So where do you stand in this important debate? Are you happy with the hours that you work or would you prefer to work fewer? And if fewer, would you opt for a four-day week or shorter working days? Or maybe both! How much of your time at work do you regard as truly productive and how much is wasted in, for instance, pointless meetings? And what about working from home? Has it had its day? Oh... and one final thought: do you enjoy your job?

Let us know.

Explore more data & articles