Does working harder make us more prosperous? It’s a question worth asking, especially when you consider the sheer amount of time we spend at work, travelling to it, or organising our entire lives around it: British workers spend a solid eleven and a half years in continual paid work, whilst we spend over a year of our lives just commuting.
The Tories certainly think that working harder for longer hours is the central foundation for a strong economy and flourishing society. They continuously fetishise the work ethic, centering their political rhetoric on the idea of the ‘hard working family’. Society is therefore divided between morally upright ‘workers’, and contemptible ‘shirkers’.
The work ethic assumes all work is inherently good and as such, work has become an end in itself. We are forced into the confines of work, no matter how damaging it is to our health and wellbeing. Work also becomes highly individualised, and poverty becomes seen to be a failing of the individual, rather than a symptom of wider problems in the economy.
But this is more than just talk. The work ethic is expressed in a brutal system of unemployment and disability benefits which are designed to force people into work. The infamous Work Capability Assessments have been shown to inflict permanent mental health problems with predictably heart-breaking results.
And what has been the result of the Tory’s obsession with work? It can only be characterised as an unmitigated failure: we have a schizophrenic economy with the lowest levels of unemployment since 1975, but the longest stagnation in wages since the Napoleonic Wars. We are the worst performing advanced economy in the world with flat-lining productivity and stalling growth.
At the same time we are suffering from a mental health crisis within work. In 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. It also acts as an economic drag on the UK economy, costing us some £6.5billion a year in lost workdays, as well as the pressure it puts on public services. We are in danger of turning into Japan, whose own stagnating economy is characterised by overwork: an estimated 10,000 workers die every year from overwork (it even has its own name: karoshi). It is well past the time we reconsider the role of work in our society.
It is time to think seriously about moving to an economy that works fewer hours. If we look at the evidence it appears that there is no direct line of causation between working longer hours and greater amounts of wealth. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case. Take Germany and Holland as examples: they have some of the lowest number of hours worked per year anywhere in the world, and some of the highest levels of GDP per person. It’s worth noting too that Greece works the longest number of hours in Europe and has the lowest levels of GDP per capita.
Working fewer hours has also been said to produce happier and more efficient workers. The effect of this would be to reduce turnover and absenteeism, and lead to a workforce that is more committed, more creative and more productive. In the UK, Pursuit Marketing experimented with a four-day week and found that productivity increased by 30%, and absence due to sickness dropped to virtually zero. And that’s no surprise, Parkinson’s law is the maxim that “work expands to fill the time we give it” – by spending less time in work we’ll waste less time in meetings, on social media, and generally distracting ourselves.
Crucially, a four-day week will help with gender equality through the redistribution of unpaid care work. In the UK, women carry out an average of 60% more unpaid work than men. This imbalance in unpaid work has a hugely negative effect on the wellbeing of women with middle-aged women two thirds more likely to suffer work stress than their male counterparts.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the shorter working week asks the fundamental question: what is the economy for? Is it to mindlessly increase levels of GDP and force people into forms of paid employment that is actively damaging their health? No. We argue that the purpose of the economy should be to maximise the wellbeing of everyone in society, and that currently, work is clearly failing to do this.
Instead, we should begin to make the transition to a four-day week and create an economy that makes us happier and healthier, where we have the time to care for our children and our elderly relatives, to exercise, to pick up any number of hobbies, to spend time with our friends and family, and do all the things that make our life worth living.
It just so happens that an economy that makes us happier is also one that makes us more prosperous. It’s time to re-think the role of work in our society and move towards a four-day week.
Check out the 4DayWeek Campaign at: www.4DayWeek.co.uk or on Twitter @4Day_Week