Would shorter working hours boost productivity? Photo: Getty.
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Why we should all be working less

France has introduced a new law to prevent employees being asked to read work emails outside office hours. Would it help solve the UK's productivity problem if we followed suit?

In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that modern technology would give workers more leisure time. In fact, it seems it has just given bosses new ways to interrupt their employees’ holidays or evening trips to the pub.

On 8 April, French employees tried to claw some of their leisure hours back, after unions and employers’ federations representing nearly one million workers signed a legally binding deal stipulating that workers should not have to check their work emails after they leave the office, and that they should turn off their work mobiles. Already under French law workers are limited to a 35-hour week, unless they sign a contract agreeing to opt out.

In Sweden too, there are experiments to reduce the working week. The city of Gothenburg has proposed a year-long trial in which half of its municipal workers will work traditional eight-hour days while the remainder will work six. The government of Gothenburg has a hunch that this could increase productivity: in the 1930s the breakfast cereal maker Kellogg’s replaced its factory workers standard eight-hour-shifts with six hour ones and saw productivity increase.

There's no hard and fast link between working hours and productivity. It’s easier to see how six-hour shifts might boost the productivity of manual labourers or factory workers, who might physically tire, but what about office jobs? It often feels as though work expands to fill the space allocated to it – but a lot also depends on office culture. In some work places employees feel a great pressure to sit at their desks long after office hours end – even if all they’re doing is surreptitiously checking Facebook  – because running out of the office at 5.01 “looks bad”.

In certain professions, such as corporate law and investment banking, unsociable hours and all-nighters are seen as a badge of honour. The UK is quite bad for this, 12 per cent of workers work more than 50-hour weeks, compared to an OECD average of 9 per cent (although we lag behind Turkey, where almost half of workers put in more than 50 hours a week.)

The OECD also publishes figures (summarised here) on the average hours worked in European countries and worker productivity. Generally, it does seem that reducing the number of hours worked increases productivity: Greeks for instance, work the longest average hours in Europe, putting in an average of 2,032 hours a year, but they are the 8th least productive workers. After Greece, Poland and Hungary work the second and third longest average hours respectively, but Poland’s workforce is the least productive in the OECD, followed by Hungary.  The five countries that work the fewest hours (Netherlands, Germany, Norway, France and Denmark respectively) are all in the top ten most productive OECD countries.

The UK, meanwhile ranks 14th both in terms of hours worked and productivity. In the past five years since the start of the recession UK productivity has fallen, and according to the Office for National Statistics output per hour worked is now 21 per cent lower than the G7 average. Would it help if standard working hours were cut?

France’s inflexible labour laws are in many other ways a headache for employers, but campaigners for shorter working weeks are probably on to something. So go on, clock off early today. Not only is it perfect pub weather in London, but in the long term your boss might thank you for it.  

 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.