In a world of iPhones and drones, people are right to wonder why they are still working so hard. The past century saw huge technological advances and yet there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in leisure time: people are working as hard as ever.
The Easter break lasts for four days; couldn’t every weekend be like this?
Proponents of shorter work time have received two pieces of goods news recently. One is the announcement of a new law in France
to prevent employees being required to read work emails out of office
hours. The other is the decision in Sweden to experiment with a six-hour work day for some public sector workers.
These two proposals go against the grain in several respects. The
French legislation challenges the prerogative of employers to require
workers to be on call when not at work – it recognises that modern
technology such as iPhones has extended work time, without additional
pay, and seeks to protect and promote the “free time” of workers. The
Swedish experiment challenges the norm of a 9-5 work day – it recognises
the potential economic and social value of a shorter work day and is
consistent with a broader movement to promote leisure time as a means to
a higher standard of life.
But the two proposals are also relatively limited in scope. The
French law only says that workers should not have to check their work
emails after 6pm. There is a concern that workers could still feel
pressurised to read emails out-of-hours and there is a question mark
over whether the law will be enforceable in practice.
The legislation also only covers a section of white collar workers,
leaving the rest of the workforce unprotected. The Swedish experiment is
limited only to public sector workers. There is no requirement on the
private sector to experiment with shorter work time – the quest to
deliver positive returns to shareholders is likely to mean that most
private firms will continue with normal patterns of work time.
Experiments in shorter work time, however, have proved successful,
suggesting that the private sector might benefit from their
implementation. WK Kellog – of cereals fame – famously improved
productivity at his plant by operating a six-hour work day.
The economic benefits from shorter work time stem from workers being
more refreshed and focused at work. Six productive hours can yield the
same output as a full eight-hour work day.
Evidence shows that longer work hours make us less productive.
The example of the Netherlands shows how shorter work time can be
achieved without a reduction in productivity and in living standards.
Longer work hours are also associated with poor health and higher mortality rates – we may be risking our lives by working longer.
As I have written before, the case for working less
is ultimately about promoting a higher quality of life including a
higher quality of work. It is about giving us more time to realise our
creative potential in all kinds of activities; it is about achieving a
life that uplifts us, rather than leaves us exhausted and frustrated.
But, given the benefits on offer, why are we not working less? Here are five reasons:
Employer power: The decline of unions coupled with a
more flexible labour market (meaning less job security) have granted
employers more power to maintain work hours that suit their own economic
Consumerism: Workers are swayed by mass advertising
and sophisticated marketing to demand more goods and services which in
turn requires that they work more.
Inequality: Workers are more likely to enter into
competitive forms of consumption and to feel more pressure to work
longer where levels of inequality are high. Evidence shows that
countries with higher inequality tend to have longer work hours.
Household debt: The build-up of household debt, especially in the US and the UK, has put added pressure on workers to work longer.
Technology: Gadgets such as iPhones and laptops have meant that workers can be at work even when commuting to work or at home.
Taken together, these points indicate that legislation to reduce work
time is essential.
Employers won’t voluntarily reduce work time, and
workers remain unable or unwilling to opt for shorter work time
themselves. We must gain the collective will to curb the time we spend
Other countries can learn from the example of France and Sweden. But
given the barriers to shorter work time, wider reforms will be needed if
we are to ever achieve a four or three day working week.
The goal of working less may appear utopian. But the quality of our lives inside and outside work depends on its achievement.
*** This post originally appeared on the Conversation, https://theconversation.com/every-weekend-could-be-four-days-long-if-the-will-was-there-25623