A Four-Day Week Is Possible

by Aidan Harper

10 February 2020

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In the aftermath of the general election, some commentators have labelled the push for a four-day working week as emblematic of the flaws in the Labour party’s campaign.

Critics slammed the policy as being part of a “cornucopia of promises” in a manifesto that read like a shopping list of “seemingly bottomless generosity”. But abandoning demands for shorter working hours risks discarding a highly popular policy with the capacity to transform our society for the betterment of all.

Mixed messages.

Although Labour suffered defeat in December’s general election, the party’s economic policies weren’t the problem. Polling indicates that 63% of Britons actively support moving to a four-day working week, making Britain the most enthusiastic supporter of the policy across the whole of Europe.

Despite this, Labour’s communication of the policy failed to convey its relevance to the lived reality of much of the electorate. The party’s plans for implementing it seemed inconsistent and confused – something that was made evident when Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, announced, “there’s not a four-day week coming in the NHS. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, however, contradicted him, saying “It will apply to everybody”.

The media also had a part to play. The four-day week was attacked by the press, with headlines claiming Labour’s plans would cost the public sector £17bn – a figure based on analysis by the opaquely funded think tank Centre for Policy Studies (CPS). The report contained a series of highly problematic assumptions, including the forecasting of a six percent rise in productivity upon the move to shorter hours – an arbitrary figure, which overlooks the growing base of evidence showing that the move towards a shorter working week produces markedly higher gains in productivity.

A subsequent report by the think tank Autonomy comprehensively disproved the CPS figure, calculating that the cost to the public sector would be closer to £3bn. The difference in figures came from Autonomy taking into account the positive feedback loop of reducing overwork, sickness and staff turnover and increasing organisational efficiency – all of which mitigate against the cost of reduced hours. We already know that there is a strong correlation between countries with shorter working time, and high levels of productivity; Germany, the Netherlands and all of Scandinavia work far fewer hours than the UK, yet have far higher levels of productivity and stronger economies.

But reducing the policy to a mere costing exercise ignores the enormous value shorter hours would bring to people’s lives. The four-day week is a practical response to a series of crises in our society and economy – and these problems aren’t going away post-election.

In the UK, we are currently suffering from a crisis of overwork. A quarter of all sick days last year were the direct result of workload. Poor mental health costs the UK economy between £74 billion and £99 billion a year.

Aside from Brexit, the NHS was the most important issue for voters in the election. Overwork is a massive issue in the health sector. Hospitals across the country are haemorrhaging staff whose mental health is suffering because of systematic underinvestment and an outdated model of working time.

The NHS has ​“critical” levels of turnover and staff leaving the health service increasingly cite work-life balance as the key reason. This story is repeated across the public sector: retention rates for teachers have declined rapidly in recent years with overwork once again named as a crucial factor.

A world of less work.

Looking to the future, the rise in cognitive technologies and artificial intelligence has the potential to replace tasks previously thought of as only able to be done by humans. Far from eliminating the need for work, there is a growing consensus that automation, if left unchecked, will lead to a polarisation of the job market. Traditionally middle-income, white collar jobs will be steadily hollowed out. Meanwhile, low-income jobs will proliferate at one end of the market, with secure high-income jobs protected at the other.

While there is admittedly a risk that automation could threaten jobs and communities, it also has the potential to offer enormous opportunities towards a world of less work. The shorter working week is one way to ensure that gains from automation are not captured by the owners of new technologies, but are instead shared fairly with workers in the form of shorter hours at the same rate of pay.

Trade unions are already leading the way on this. The Communication Workers Union has agreed with Royal Mail to shorten the working week from 39 to 35 hours for 134,000 postal workers. It argues that their members should benefit from the mechanisation of the parcel packaging process in the form of shorter hours. Unite the Union is also gearing up for campaigns around shorter hours and automation.

The four-day week has also made significant inroads in the private sector. Successful trials, experiments and permanent moves towards shorter hours have gained in popularity over the past few years – and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Of the businesses who have already adopted a four-day working week, two-thirds have reported improvements in staff productivity. And over a third of business leaders think moving to a four-day week will be important for their future success.

The four-day week is now a part of the zeitgeist. Labour was the first major political party in the world to back a four-day week. For any political party looking to capture the future, a world of less work has to be a part of their ambition.

For it to become a reality, we must learn from the election and strive to build a coherent narrative around how shorter hours would address the crises we face. More than that, we must strive to show a clearer link between automation, the four-day week and an economy fit for the 21st century. Shorter hours have always been a part of the workers’ movement – its recent revival should be celebrated as a return to those fundamental principles upon which that very movement was founded.

Aidan Harper is a researcher for the New Economics Foundation and member of the 4 Day Week Campaign.

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