Work less, live more: 10 arguments for a shorter working week

We look at the benefits to working less as countries try to adopt a four-day work week. This includes strengthening families and gender equality.

Many people have had to reevaluate their relationship with work due to the pandemic. Some countries even tried to introduce a four-day work week. 

Spain is leading this charge. The idea is being tested by the Spanish government with companies interested in changing things. “With the four-day work week, we’re launching into the real debate of our times,” said Iñigo Errejón of the leftwing Más País party, which proposed the idea. “It’s an idea whose time has come.”

Scotland has also committed to testing the four-day week. Some forward-thinking corporations, however, have started their own experiments.

Unilever, a multinational consumer goods corporation, has been testing the concept with employees in New Zealand. Last week, Canon announced it would pilot a four-day week without any loss of pay. The UK trial will run by academics at Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Rutger Bregman (a Dutch journalist and author) is one of those advocating a shorter workweek. “For some of us, the line is blurred between work and what we love, so our lives wouldn’t change much,” he SubmittedPositive News interview. “But for many, there is a clear distinction between what’s work and the rest of life.

“I think we need to work less in certain jobs in order to do more of what matters and what is meaningful and important to society.”

Four-day week

Working more doesn’t make you more productive, studies suggest. Image: Campaign Creators

Working fewer hours doesn’t necessarily equate to a reduction in productivity. According to a 2017 Swedish trial, a six-hour work day was found to be more productive than the alternative. Despite not being able to convince everyone, the Swedish trial was successful in proving that the benefits outweighed the cost.

Daniel Bernmar, a politician who helped bring about the experiment at a retirement home in Gothenburg, told Positive News that the results presented “the complete opposite narrative of the need to work more and to work harder”.

The New Economics Foundation has long supported the idea that shorter working hours are a good thing. Anna Coote is the principal fellow at the thinktank and explains 10 reasons why this could be beneficial for society.

1. A smaller carbon footprint

Countries with shorter hours tend to have a smaller environmental footprint. The UK, as a nation, is currently exceeding its natural resource share. We should move away from the fast lane and allow us to live more sustainably.

2. A stronger economy

If handled properly, a move towards a shorter working week would improve social and economic equality, easing our dependence on debt-fuelled growth – key ingredients of a robust economy. It would also be more competitive: The Netherlands and Germany have shorter working weeks than the US, but their economies are just as strong or even stronger.

3. Better employees

People who work less tend be more productive hour for hour than those who work more than 40 hours per week. They are less likely to be sick or absenteeism, and they make up a more stable, committed workforce.

4. Lower unemployment

Average working hours may have spiralled, but they are not spread equally across our economy – just as some find themselves working all hours of the day and night, others struggle to find work at all. A shorter workweek would help to spread out the unpaid and paid time more evenly.

5. Better wellbeing

Everyone would benefit from more time to do what they like, which would reduce stress and improve their mental and physical well-being. It would be easier to work less than the current way of living to work, earning to earn, and then consuming. It would encourage us all to appreciate and reflect on the things we truly value in our lives.

Four-day week

According to NEF, countries that have shorter working hours have smaller ecological footprints. Guy Bowden

6. More equality between men & women

Unpaid work is where women spend more time than men. Moving towards a shorter working week as the ‘norm’ would help change attitudes about gender roles, promote more equal shares of paid and unpaid work, and help revalue jobs traditionally associated with women’s work.

7. Affordable childcare of higher quality

High demand for childcare is partly due to a culture of long work hours that has spiralled outof control. A shorter working week would help fathers and mothers balance their lives better, which would reduce the cost of full time childcare. Parents would have more time with their children if they worked fewer hours. This would allow for more experiences, learning, and teaching opportunities for both mothers and fathers.

8. More time for family, friends, and neighbors

Spending less time in paid work would enable us to spend more time with and care for each other – our parents, children, friends and neighbours – and to value and strengthen all the relationships that make our lives worthwhile and help to build a stronger society.

9. Making the most of life later

A shorter, more flexible work week could make the transition to retirement easier. It could also be spread over a longer time period. People could gradually reduce their hours over a decade or longer. It can be traumatizing to suddenly shift from long hours to no paid work. This can often lead to illness and early death.

10. A stronger democracy

We’d all have more time to participate in local activities, to find out what’s going on around us, to engage in politics, locally and nationally, to ask questions and to campaign for change.

This is an update to an article published on April 19, 2017. The original version of this article’s 10 reasons section was published by the New Economics Foundation.