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Utopia: Work less play more

A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

January 18, 2017
4 min read

Credit: Valerie Everett/ Flickr

According to the latest YouGov poll, more than one in four of us work longer hours than we want to. The UK tops the European long hours league, and research published by the TUC in 2015 revealed that the number of people working over 48 hours a week had increased by 15 per cent since 2010. In a culture of overwork (and, in an increasing number of cases, underpay) most of us feel that we have no choice but to work longer and longer hours.

But across the world a growing number of people, organisations and even countries are bucking this trend and recognising the value of a shorter working week.

In Sweden, employers across the country are moving to a six-hour working day to improve productivity and staff wellbeing. Toyota centres in Gothenberg, Sweden’s second-largest city, made the switch 13 years ago, and the company has since reported higher productivity, with mechanics producing, in 30 hours of work, more than double what they used to produce in 40 hours.

A nursing home in the same city has switched from an eight to six-hour work day – with nurses retaining the same wage – in a bid to tackle levels of depression and exhaustion among care staff. The trial is proving a success. Nurses working shorter days take half as much sick leave, there have been marked improvements in both staff wellbeing and the quality of care provided, and staff turnover has fallen.

The shift towards shorter, more flexible working arrangements is not confined to Sweden. An increasing number of start-ups, from Merseyside to Utah, have been trialling shorter working arrangements with great success. Earlier this year, staff at the Glasgow-based firm Pursuit Marketing moved to a four-day week for the same pay. Since the shift the firm has seen a 30 per cent increase in productivity and a dramatic fall in sickness absence.

Clearly, a shorter working week would drastically improve our quality of life, both within and outside the workplace (before we even begin to count the environmental benefits of working less). So how can we make it happen?

The move to shortening the work week would need to be gradual, with a minimal impact on pay. New entrants to the labour market could start on a 30-hour week, while workers over 50 could take a one hour cut in their working week each year, reaching a 30-hour-week at 60 and 20-hour-week at 70. At annual pay negotiations, workers could be offered the opportunity to trade a bit of time for a smaller pay rise.

To enable everyone to work fewer hours, particularly those stuck working long hours because of inadequate pay, a shorter working week must go hand in hand with a higher minimum wage, more generous child benefit and a more secure ‘social income’ in terms of high-quality services that are collectively funded and provided.

A world with a standard working week of 30 hours or less would be one in which we all have more time – to care for one another, to be active members of our communities and to participate in democracy. With more time, we could lead more sustainable lives, cooking and growing our own food and moving away from the carbon-intensive, fast-paced lifestyles that are today’s norm. With a decrease in overwork, caring responsibilities could be more evenly divided between genders, challenging gender norms and leading to more equal workplaces and a shrinking pay gap.

Across the world, people are showing us that a shorter working week is not just a utopian dream, but a real, practical possibility for a better life, one in which we are less stressed, less anxious and have more control over our lives.

Madeleine Ellis-Petersen is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation and formerly co-ran OxGrow, a community garden

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