The decision by science charity Wellcome not to go ahead with its plan to trial a 4-day week for 800 head office staff because it would be too ‘operationally complex’, goes against the evidence ( including a major New Zealand study) that 4-day working, without a loss of pay improves productivity, staff motivation, not to mention the general wellbeing of a workforce.
Millions of work days are lost because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Long hours of work that people are expected to perform also weigh heavily against those with caring responsibilities, particularly women.
But demands for a 4-day week should not just be seen in the context of improving efficiency or as part of new management theory. They must be central to labour movement and trade union demands – part of a recognition of how increased automation benefits workers in other ways. So it’s promising that shadow chancellor John McDonnell has confirmed Labour will “look at the working week” as part of an examination of working practices, while TUC boss Frances O’Grady, has said a 4-day week should be a union ambition.
But if the commitment from labour movement leaders to reduce working time is to be welcomed, other developments in the labour market pull against this. Studies show that many people (up to one in ten) say they need to work more hours because pay is too low and as 1 in 8 workers are now ‘self employed’, large numbers would remain outside of any statutory limits. Huge increases in ‘flexible working’, mean restrictions would also need to be put on ‘hours’ not just ‘days’.
Another feature of 21st century work, particularly for jobs often labelled ‘professional’ – to improve their status rather than really reflect what the job involves – is the amount of unpaid overtime worked. The TUC calculated that 5.3 million people put in an average of 7.7 hours a week in unpaid overtime during 2016.
Yet if many workers feel under pressure to work more than they should do, a significant minority (often reinforced by the increase in ‘working from home’ a practice which more and more people in managerial and professional undertake) are completely absorbed by work as a source of identity. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with people liking their jobs – in fact it’s much better if they do! The problem is that the manic working practices of the few, reinforce the oppressive status of what is invariably not very exciting or meaningful work for the many, at the expense of other activities however self-fulfilling or socially useful they may be.
Statutory changes are needed. People work too hard, too much, for not enough. But reducing working time and extending ‘free-time’ also means challenging the ‘over work culture’ that is increasingly pervasive.