What if... we worked less?
How can we claim to be free when we have no choice but to work? It is not a flippant question; for the majority of people in Western societies the very model of working time we use is perhaps the greatest obstacle to freedom on a day-to-day basis. We are given the choice to either work, or to starve: it’s hardly the resounding vision of a free society, particularly one with unprecedented material wealth. But what if we could expand the amount of time we call our own? In the search for greater freedom, a fast growing movement for a four-day week has emerged.
We are chronically overworked and suffer from a crisis of worsening mental health. In 2018, the total number of days lost to work-related stress, anxiety and depression in the UK rose by three million to 15.4 million. Overwork is the major reason for sickness at work, with one in four of all sick days lost as a direct result of workload. The issue is an international one: in Japan an estimated 10,000 workers die every year from overwork. The issue is so bad it even has its own name: karōshi.
Long hours are not only toxic for our health, they make very little economic sense: Germany, the Netherlands and Norway work the fewest number of hours in Europe. Yet productivity is 26 per cent lower in the UK than in Germany, whose citizens work far fewer hours. If German workers were to stop working at Thursday lunchtime, they would have produced as much as a British worker by the end of Friday. Japan’s chronically overworked workforce has the lowest productivity figures in the G7.
Our model of working time is broken and outdated. It helps perpetuate deep and interconnected problems within our economies, including the rise of gig work, the impact of automation, persistent gender inequality, stagnating productivity, continued job polarization and vast income inequality.
Some people are successfully moving towards a world of less work. Trade unions across Europe are beginning to campaign for shorter hours; Germany’s IG Metall union and the UK’s Communication Workers Union have made significant strides in this regard, while the European Trade Union Institute and the Trades Union Congress have also made the case for a shorter working week.
Some local governments are experimenting. In 2015, the city council of Reykjavik, Iceland, launched a trial to reduce the working week by around four hours per person. Starting with about 70 people, the experiment was so successful it was expanded to 2,000 council workers and is likely to be made permanent.
In New Zealand/Aotearoa, the finance company Perpetual Guardian made headlines when it moved its staff to a four-day week with no reduction in pay. Output and performance remained constant, while work-life balance and staff stress levels were markedly improved. Organizations across Europe and the US are following suit, experimenting with different models of working time.
We are seeing a new politics of time emerge, from trade unions, campaigners, political parties and businesses. The shorter working week is a practical and humane response to the multiple crises we are facing in our economies. But it is more than a technical response to these problems: a shorter working week would loosen the chains of work and expand the time in which we can truly be free.