How about working less?

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How about working less?


Aidan Harper writes about a new idea about working times.

How can we say we are free when we have to work? It is a serious question. For most people in the West the idea we have about the time we work perhaps stops us from being free the most. We can work or be hungry. It’s not really the best idea of a free society, and when we have more wealth than before. But let’s think about changing the idea of how much time we call our own. With the idea of being freer, more and more people are thinking about a four-day week.

We work far too much and suffer from worse mental health. In 2018, the number of days lost because of stress, anxiety, and depression at work in the UK rose by three million to 15.4 million. Overwork is the biggest reason for illness at work, with one in four of all sick days lost as a result of too much work. It is an international problem. In Japan about 10,000 workers die every year from overwork. The problem is so bad it has its own name: karōshi.

Long hours are not only bad for our health. They make very little economic sense. Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway work the fewest number of hours in Europe. But productivity is 26 per cent lower in the UK than in Germany, where people work far fewer hours. If German workers stopped at Thursday lunchtime, they would produce as much as a British worker by the end of Friday. Japan’s very overworked workers have the lowest productivity figures in the G7. Our idea of working time is broken and out of date. It helps to keep big and connected problems in our economies, including the rise of gig work, the effects of automation, gender inequality, lower productivity, and income inequality.

Some people are successfully working less. Trade unions in Europe are beginning to campaign for shorter hours. Germany’s IG Metall union and the UK’s Communication Workers Union have made progress with this and the European Trade Union Institute and the Trades Union Congress have also asked for a shorter working week. Some local governments are trying the idea. In 2015, Reykjavik, in Iceland, tried reducing the working week by about four hours per person. Starting with about 70 people, it was so successful it then included 2,000 council workers and it is likely to be permanent.

In New Zealand/Aotearoa, the finance company Perpetual Guardian moved its workers to a four-day week with the same pay. Productivity was the same and work-life balance and stress were improved. Organizations in Europe and the US are trying this idea of different working times.

We are seeing a new politics of time, from trade unions, campaigners, political parties, and businesses. The shorter working week is a practical answer to the many problems we have in our economies. And a shorter working week would increase the time in which we can really be free.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)