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The case for changing the working week

by Tyron Wilson

It’s official: despite the fetish for ‘hard-working families’ in political rhetoric, British politicians are speaking to fewer and fewer of them. Britain’s productivity is bust: the US, Italy and - in the cruellest blow to national pride - even France are streaks ahead when it comes to output from how many hours their workers put in.

What is the cause? Poor skills, a lack of investment in infrastructure, and even poor managers have all taken the cop from the commentariat for the UK lagging eighteen percentage points behind the G7’s average productivity. But despite effort on the first two (and action on the latter likely to remain over the rainbow), the gap is stubbornly widening.

But what if the answer to the productivity gap is one of timing? It is an answer that workers moon-eyed from the joys of a three-day bank holiday weekend will struggle to not sympathise with. Brits famously have some of the lowest holiday allowances in Europe and put in some of the longest hours in the world. Nearly two million of us work more than 45 hours a week. And research from The Economist has shown a firm correlation between hours worked and productivity in those hours: namely, the more hours people work, the less value they generate with every additional hour.

So, the proposal goes, why not try changing the workweek?

It has been tried elsewhere. France introduced a 35 hour work-week in 2000; not a cap, but a level above which overtime or rest days are given, concentrating bosses’ minds to only have their employees work those extra hours when required. Utah brought in a 4 day, ten-hour week for its public sector in 2008, keeping the 40-hour workweek while enshrining a three-day weekend. Even more many revolutionarily, in a New York Times op-ed in 2012, software CEO Jason Fried spoke of how his company had introduced four-day weeks too – but with 32 hours, instead of 40. In his words, “with less time to work, you waste less time. Constraining time encourages quality time”.

Many may find Fried’s approach a little too utopian for their bottom lines, but there is some evidence that there are advantages of getting away from the solid 9-to-5. France saw a sharp increase in productivity ahead of the Eurozone’s average after the introduction of the 35-hour week, with a 15pc fall in unemployment at the same time (though also during a time of strong economic growth). Utah saw a 14pc fall in carbon emissions as a result of two fewer commutes a week and a day less with lights on in public buildings. The new hours were also popular with 9-to-5 workers, who appreciated the extra hours in the day to use public services. And if David Cameron ever plans on reviving his ‘Big Society’ wheeze, he may also be interested to know that Utah’s 4-day workweek saw a big boost in volunteering in the state.

However, the changes have generally fallen in the face of economic pressure. Demand from French industry and a sagging economy have seen loopholes brought in for companies to get around the shortened week, despite its public popularity. Similar political shifts saw the 4-day week ended in Utah in 2011. Ultimately, during a recession, calls for more hours are far too attractive and plain a solution to resist.

But while the UK’s economic growth still comes hand-in-hand with a drift in productivity, it is definitely worth considering how it could be improved through better-structured working weeks. Though many higher-ups who made it to their positions with Stakhanovite effort and work hours a little closer to 5-to-9 than 9-to-5 may sniff at such proposals, continued sluggish productivity certainly won’t make British companies the most appealing of investment prospects.

Perhaps if a reduction in hours is a little too tough to swallow for executive boards, they could consider how we treat our workers out of hours, taking inspiration from Germany – a nation which coasts its way on hours worked with productivity levels which are the envy of the world.

Germany’s labour ministry imposed a ban on out-of-hours emails that weren’t immediately urgent, enshrining ‘minimum intervention’ into employees’ free time as a principle to reduce the stress from constant connection with work. If timing is contributing to the productivity puzzle, perhaps this is the key – making sure Britain’s hard-working families are working hard at the right times.

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