Would shorter working hours boost productivity? Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.