The campaign for a four-day working week: Good for wellbeing or economic disaster?
“We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to do’ list.” Michelle Obama
When was the last time you felt relaxed? Last night after a glass of wine or on the weekend over a few beers with friends? Maybe it was on the third day of your annual holiday that was…how many months ago?
Health & Safety Executive statistics make stark reading with stress, depression, anxiety and problems with joints, muscles and nerves accounting for 22 million lost working days over 2017/18. The financial costs to government and employers run into billions with individuals carrying the biggest burden.
But what about the human cost? One in four of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our lives. Is it therefore not essential for employers to take bold steps?
From five years old we are conditioned to leave our homes five days a week. Uniformity guides our lives and keeps society ‘working’ in unison. Parents are threatened with fines or possible imprisonment for taking their children on holiday. Our children’s’ caregivers, teachers, are leaving the profession in record numbers due to stress. The National Education Union says ‘teachers are now spending more than 21 hours a week working at home.’ A similar picture can be seen across all public services.
Stress accounts for over 30% of sickness absence in the NHS costing £300-400 million annually according to NHS Employers. An article in The Guardian states that ‘research reveals record numbers of burnt-out NHS staff in England are quitting because they are fed up with spending too much time at work and not enough at home with their family.’ From hospitals to the hospitality industry, the effects of long working hours, is a serious concern. Mental health charity MIND advises us ‘not let our life be work and that we must nurture outside relationships, interests and skills that our job doesn’t use.’ That’s great advice but you need time for this.
Of course, these issues are not only due to people working long hours. Austerity has also had devastating consequences contributing to poor mental health, which has clear links with poverty. But how many people who work forty or fifty plus hours a week still struggle to pay essential bills? Sounds familiar?
If all this sounds depressing, well yes, that’s because it is. It could be argued that we are not only facing a climate emergency and ecological disaster but a mental and physical health paralysis too. Anyone spot the links? If Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was replaced by Gross National Happiness (GNH) you’d have to ask, how would our country fair? But, however bleak the above reads, all is not lost.
Like environmental campaigning there’s a welcome increase in awareness surrounding our mental health and wellbeing. #MentalHealth regularly trends with the phrase ‘work life balance’ being bounced about only second to Brexit. Current campaigns and supporters for a four-day week are looking for a reduction in hours without employees taking a pay cut.
Spokesperson for the 4 Day Week Campaign, Aidan Harper, told us:
Just as we won the weekend and the eight-hour day, the four-day week is merely the next logical step in our economic development. We can begin to make this change with immediate effect. The evidence is clear; the benefits to our mental health, to gender equality, and our relationship to the environment could be profound.
Check out their video ‘Demand a 4 Day Week’.
Over the last few decades vast amounts of wealth have been created and technology has revolutionised the ways we can live and work. But we still work some of the longest hours in Europe with a colossal and detrimental impact on our health and well-being. It’s time we saw the benefits and they were shared out equally. Workplaces around the country are already trying out a four-day week, recognising the benefits to morale, employee retention and productivity. A four-day week is an idea whose time has surely come.
Momentum has officially backed a four-day week with no loss of pay to be passed as a motion at Labour’s Party Conference in Brighton in September. If you missed it, catch up with Bright Green’s recent article by the spokesperson for Labour’s Four Day Week Campaign and Labour Party activist, Kulsoom Jafri, who talks about how a shorter working week would alleviate the widespread burn out and high, work-related stress levels that the UK workforce endures.
The Telegraph recently reported that the Conservative government is against changes to the current system and believe that the proposals would ‘weaken the UK’s economy and put jobs at risk’. Speaking in Liberal Democratic Voice the Hackney Liberal Democrat’s Press and Social Media Officer said that the approach should be one of ‘flexibility’ rather than a rigid implementation of a four-day week model. But would this lead to uncertainty and confusion for employers and their staff forcing them to return to the status quo?
Studies show that UK employees work the longest working week across Europe. Despite this, we are one of the least productive. However, Denmark have the shortest working week and are the second most productive. Across the EU workers average 40.2 hours per week. The CBI would like workers to have the ‘flexibility’ to work a 48-hour week meaning a possible fifty hours plus with commuting.
Large employer, The Wellcome Trust scrapped plans to trial a four-day week citing operational issues and concerns over ‘fairness’ to employees. However, supporters argue that challenges can be overcome even when employers need people on site around the clock. Campaigners say the answer is to employ ‘more people’. Government departments have been identified as suitable for trials to take place as there’s not the same pressure to make profit. Taxi firms to communication companies have already made a success of the four-day week switch.
Supporting a four-day week is not an attack on employers, personal financial security or economic stability but a genuine call to improve our time spent on this planet. Allowing time to make connections with nature, our natural environment and those we care about, including ourselves, is a must. Doing nothing, carrying on with what we know because ‘we’ve always done so’, will see our health, quality of life and environment deteriorate into a dark place.