I am not one of life’s strivers. I have never “forgotten” to take a break. My school reports said things such as “Emma does just enough”. If I work for too long my brain goes into blue-screen mode like an old PC, whether I am ready for it to switch off or not.
Now it seems the rest of the working world is joining me in realising the value of downtime. On 17 January the campaign group the 4 Day Week, alongside researchers at Oxford and Cambridge Universities (establishments I did not apply for – too much effort), launched a pilot scheme under which 30 UK companies will trial a four-day week. Canon is involved in the scheme, and Panasonic and Unilever are among companies already running such schemes around the world.
To which I say: guys, come in! The water’s lovely! I’ve been working four days a week since July 2020 – and it is a joy.
My week used to be frenetic, starting on a Sunday night with the inevitable panic about Monday, which would then fly by until about 3pm, when I would fall into a food coma and clock-watch until home time. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays felt endless. By Friday, I was worn out: I usually spent the day making the odd phone call, but generally waiting for the end of the day so I could shakily pour myself a glass of wine as I contemplated household chores I needed to address that weekend: washing, cooking, cleaning.
More than that, taking on any project outside of work became overwhelming. When I started a podcast, I ended up with one or two hours’ extra work per day, on top of a job that mandated I be in the office from 7am-5pm, Monday-Friday, plus the odd weekend day.
I asked to drop down to four days but my request was turned down. “We’ve never had anyone without kids ask this before,” the HR woman said. Such responses have been very much the norm until recently: a poll conducted by the Trades Union Congress in 2019 found that one in three requests for flexible work were turned down.
Then, in 2020, things changed. After having a baby and returning from maternity leave, I started my job at the New Statesman. I was lucky: my request to work four days a week was treated as normal. Crucially, my husband, who is self-employed, also decided to work a four-day week so he could spend time with our daughter.
For the first time in my working life, things seem doable: on Mondays, my husband takes the baby to playgroup and spends the rest of the day going to the supermarket and cooking with her. On Fridays, my daughter and I see friends and do housework together. She still naps, so I have a few hours to myself: last year, I co-wrote a book during her nap times. At the moment I’m mainly watching Queer Eye on Netflix. It is sheer, unmitigated luxury. I will never go back.