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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Labour must learn the secrets of the Scottish Conservatives

 A Faustian pact with the SNP is not the short cut back to power some in Labour think it is. 

If Labour wants to recover as a political force, in Scotland or nationally, it must do the hard work of selling voters on a British, progressive party. But some in both the SNP and Labour sense a shortcut - a "progressive alliance"

Progressives might be naturally cautious about taking advice from a Conservative, but anybody covering Scottish politics for a Tory website is very familiar with life in the doldrums. And there are a few things to be learnt down there. 

First, as Scottish Labour members will tell anyone who listens, the SNP talk an excellent progressive game, particularly on any area where they’re in opposition. But in government the Nationalists have simply navigated by two stars - differentiating Scotland from England to the greatest extent possible, and irritating as few people as possible, all in order to engineer support for independence.

Independence itself would, according to nearly all objective assessments, involve a sharp adjustment in Scottish public expenditure, and painful consequences for those who depend on it. Yet this does little to dent the SNP’s enthusiasm. All their political reasoning is worked out backwards from that overriding goal.

There is no reason to believe that the nationalists' priorities at Westminster would be any different. Joining the SNP in "progressive alliance" would be a poison pill for Labour. 

For the larger party would be in a double bind. Govern cautiously, respecting the relative weakness of the left in England and Wales, and the SNP will paint its coalition partner as "Red Tory", taking credit for whatever was popular in Scotland and disowning the rest. 

But drive through a more radical programme with SNP votes (presumably after dismantling "English Votes for English Laws"), and risk permanently alienating huge sections of the electorate south of the border. Those Miliband-in-Salmond’s-pocket pictures would be just the start.

Scottish Labour is familiar with the reality of the SNP in power. But that's not to say it isn't making its own mistakes. Too often, it tries to strike the same sort of bargain with small-n nationalism.

Constitutionally-focused politics isn’t kind to social democrats, as Irish Labour will tell you. So it’s clear why Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale would wish to believe that there is a split-the-difference constitutional position which would, as this article has it, offer “an escape from the black and white world of referendum politics”.

But incantations about "federalism" and "home rule" aren’t going to save Labour. They’re an attempt to appeal to everybody, and are neither intellectually nor politically adequate to the challenge facing the party.

Holyrood is already one of the most powerful sub-state legislatures on earth, so "federalism" is at this point mostly a question of how England is run. If “more powers” were actually going to stop nationalism, we’d have seen some evidence of it during the last 20 years.

And as political tactics go, it won’t woo back voters whom the SNP have persuaded that independence is a progressive cause, but it will alienate voters who care about the union.

Here, Scottish Labour should learn from the Conservatives. The leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, realised that voters were always going to have better non-Conservative options on the ballot paper than the Tories, so there was no way back that didn’t involve selling voters on Conservatism. A new Conservatism in important respects, but nonetheless a British, centre-right party.

Labour too must recognise that they are never going to be a more appealing option than the SNP to voters who believe separatism is a good idea. Instead, they must sell voters on what they are: a British, centre-left party. The progressive case for Britain, and against independence, is there to be made.

Labour needs to sell the United Kingdom, and the Britishness underlying it, as a progressive force. As long as left-wing voters remain attached to independence and the SNP, despite all the implications, Labour will be marginalised and the union in danger. 

Henry Hill is assistant editor of ConservativeHome, and has written their Red, White, and Blue column on Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland since 2013. Follow him @HCH_Hill.