Leader: The benefits of a shorter working week

Far from lowering productivity, working fewer hours increases it by reducing mental illness, absenteeism, worker turnover and early retirement. 

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In his celebrated essay of 1930, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”, John Maynard Keynes sought to counter the pessimism of the time by predicting that rising living standards and technological advancements would enable a 15-hour week by the beginning of the 21st century. “For the first time since his creation,” he wrote, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares… to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Yet though, as Keynes anticipated, living standards rose, working hours did not fall. Nearly 90 years after his essay, Britons work an average of 42.3 hours a week, the highest full-time level in the EU (the lowest – 37.8 hours – is in Denmark). Productivity (output per hour), however, is 13 per cent below the G7 average. Overwork, leading to illness, absenteeism and low investment (among the worst in the G7), is emblematic of the new “British disease”.

Such is our attachment to work that the notion of a four-day week has long appeared utopian. But as our associate editor Helen Lewis, presenter of a new BBC Radio 4 series on overwork, writes this week, the idea is entering the mainstream. The economist Robert Skidelsky, Keynes’s pre-eminent biographer, is chairing a commission for the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, on a four-day week, and a recent report by the think tank Autonomy, The Shorter Working Week: A Radical and Pragmatic Proposal, makes a detailed and persuasive case for the policy.

Research has shown that far from lowering productivity, shorter working days increase it by reducing physical and mental illness, absenteeism, worker turnover and early retirement. There is no positive correlation between long worker hours and productivity: Germany is more productive than the UK (by 26.7 per cent) but works fewer hours on average; Mexico and Greece are less productive but work more.

A recent trial of a four-day week by the New Zealand trust manager Perpetual Guardian proved so successful – higher productivity, reduced stress – that the firm is considering making it permanent. Other social and economic benefits include a reduced burden on health-care services (poor mental health at work is estimated to cost employers £33bn-£42bn, or 2 per cent of GDP, a year) and greater environmental sustainability through a reduction in the number of commutes and an increase in low-carbon activities, such as walking or cycling instead of driving. And for the 881,000 UK part-time employees who wish to work full-time, a four-day week would enable the redistribution of work.

The Conservative government has long boasted of record employment in Britain (75.8 per cent, the highest rate since comparable records began in 1971). This record, however, has masked underlying and persistent flaws: the longest period of peacetime wage stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars, dismal productivity growth, the rise of casual and insecure part-time work and self-employment, and crumbling or inferior infrastructure (ministers should try commuting into London by train every day).

Tory governments, mercifully, no longer view mass unemployment as a “price worth paying”, but rather than merely more work, the UK needs smarter work too.

Choice versus curation

During his time as president of the United States, Barack Obama was notorious for wearing only blue or grey suits. His rationale was simple: he had so many decisions to take at work that he did not want any extra ones in his private life.

It is easy to feel sympathy with President Obama’s reasoning when navigating a world of seemingly endless choices, as Ian Leslie describes this week. With scores of television channels and even more programmes available on demand – not to mention thousands of songs at the command of Alexa, and a Kindle library full of books – paralysis can set in.

In such a world, curation becomes more important than ever. Part of the mission of journalism is to tell readers what is worth their time, whether that be news or culture. It is a mission the New Statesman takes seriously, as our weekly magazine shows. With so many competing demands on our attention and a world of near-infinite choice, our magazine offers something wonderful: you can finish it.

This article appears in the 08 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe