In late July, as he introduced a groundbreaking proposal for a 32-hour work week to Congress, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) declared Americans should have “more time to live their lives, and not just work.” With workers returning to the job as certain Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, Takano noted many people will want to work fewer hours instead of going back to “normal.”
For more than a decade, my colleagues and I at the New Economics Foundation have been arguing that it’s high time to move to a shorter working week. As we show in our new book, The Case for a Four Day Week, growing evidence suggests reduced work time is good for human well-being, good for the economy and good for the environment.
We’ve grown used to being told a four-day workweek is too radical and can’t be done — but that’s all starting to change. Since Covid struck in winter 2020, for many workers, going into the office to work for five full days a week has become the exception rather than the rule. The number of workers who know what it feels like to have more free time has risen dramatically. So has the number of employers who have discovered it’s possible to reorganize staff time and still get the job done. Across rich countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), more than 50 million workers have been subject to Covid-related work time reduction and job retention schemes. Most of these changes were intended to be temporary, but have given both employers and workers crucial experience of doing things differently.
At this point it should be clear that the economy will not simply “bounce back” to the same place it was before we faced this pandemic. Anyone concerned about the climate emergency knows that mustn’t happen anyway. The time for tweaking at the edges of our economic system is well past. We need to move toward a deeper shift — not only in how the economy works, but in how people think the economy should work.
The shorter working week is an idea whose time has come.
It will help post-Covid recovery. And it’s a strategy for the long-haul — a foundation stone for transitioning to a fairer and more sustainable economy. As such, it’s part of a broader policy agenda that includes raising hourly wages. Reduced working time must go hand in hand with measures to combat low pay.
Shorter working time can reduce stress and anxiety and improve physical health. For example, a study by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization found that exposure to long working hours (around 55 hours a week) “is common and causes large attributable burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke.” The U.K. government reports that stress, depression or anxiety account for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health — with “workload pressures” routinely cited as a major cause.
Reduced working hours leaves more time for other activities, including unpaid domestic labor. That means new opportunities are opened up for men to spend more time caring for their families and for women to get paid work on a more equal footing with men. No one imagines these changes will come easily, but unless the opportunity is there, they won’t happen at all.
Our call for a four-day workweek is shorthand. What we’re ultimately after is a steady move toward shorter hours for everyone, with different arrangements — negotiated with employers — to suit different needs. Some may want five short days rather than a three-day weekend. Others may want more time off when their kids are young, or sabbaticals to travel or train for a new job.
Research shows people care about having control over their time just as much as having more time outside of the workplace. France was one of the first countries to introduce a statutory 35-hour week in 1998, which proved popular at first, but public support fell away two years later when the law changed to shift control over the allocation of hours from workers to employers. Research by leading public health expert Michael Marmot has identified control over work and other aspects of life as a key factor influencing physical and mental well-being.
There’s also a strong environmental case for shorter working hours. A study of the relationship between average hours worked and carbon emissions across all 50 U.S. states found those with longer hours had higher emissions. The authors conclude that “working time reduction allows a society to reduce its impact on the environment.”
How does reducing work time reduce our impact on the environment? It’s partly because the amount of free time we have influences our everyday habits. When we are constantly working, we need to buy a lot of “convenience” goods like processed meals. We want to get around quicker — by car instead of bike, by plane instead of bus or train. When goods and gadgets go wrong, we are quicker to throw them out and buy new ones instead of mending them or getting them repaired. All of these factors ramp up energy-intensive consumption.
Reduced working time also helps chip away at the notion that work is only rewarded by money — as if the only thing we should aspire to is to work more to earn more to buy more stuff. That’s grossly unsustainable. It’s time to shift the dial, to reward work with time — not just money — and to change ideas about what matters in life and what “success” actually means.
A common objection from critics of the four-day week is that shorter working hours would be bad for the economy because it reduces productivity.
In fact, it’s been found that workers on shorter hours often increase their productivity — working more effectively in six hours a day than in eight, for example. When workers feel better in themselves, they can be more focused, they enjoy their work more, and are often more loyal and committed to the job.
People lose concentration in the last hour or so of a working day and take longer to complete tasks. A 2017 study of call center agents found that they took longer to handle calls toward the end of the day, which meant they were less productive. Conversely, when a car service station in Sweden switched its workforce from a 40-hour to a 30-hour week, the mechanics upped their productivity by 14% and profits rose by 25%.
But let’s not forget that in many jobs, output per capita per hour is not a useful metric. What counts is the quality and the outcome of the work. Caring and teaching are obvious examples. But there’s also jobs in transport, where it’s not driving the bus faster that counts, but driving it safely and on time. Many jobs, from the arts to sports, have to be judged in terms of quality, not quantity, of output.
The success of an economy must be measured in terms of human and planetary well-being, not just rates of growth. Reduced working time is good for the economy because it contributes to a healthy society and a sustainable future — and it can improve the quality of work in many sectors. A flourishing society is one where we have time to care for each other, for our neighborhoods, our natural surroundings and ourselves. It’s not one where we are trapped in the fast lane of hard graft and escalating consumption. That way lies wrecked lives and a wrecked planet.
Let’s also not forget that what used to be considered “normal” was a dangerous and unacceptable arrangement. A 60-hour week (or longer) was a perfectly standard status quo, until trade unions began fighting for a 40-hour week more than a century ago. That fight continues today.
More recently, there have been popular experiments with shorter working hours in countries like Sweden, Germany and New Zealand. Governments have passed laws to support reduced working time in France, the Netherlands and Belgium. And it’s becoming increasingly common for trade unions to take up the cause. The Industrial Union of Metal Workers in Germany negotiated a 28-hour week with the Südwestmetall employers’ organization in 2018. Rep. Mark Takano’s 32-hour bill is part of this international movement. Its chances of becoming law may be slim right now (the bill currently has 12 cosponsors in the House), but it is moving with the tide of today’s shifting attitudes and patterns around work time.
The transition to a shorter work week is bound to start gradually and unevenly, with a combination of voluntary, negotiated and statutory moves. The key to making it work as a progressive reform is to have a clear set of values. The end goal must be to benefit working people, reduce inequalities and help save the planet.
Anna Coote is head of social policy for the New Economics Foundation. A leading analyst, writer and advocate in the field of social policy, Anna is a co-author of The Case for a Four Day Week.