Counting down the hours: could a shorter working week raise productivity and improve our mental health?

In 1930, the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within 100 years the working week would have shrunk to 15 hours. He believed that as living standards rose people would choose to have more leisure time as their material needs were satisfied.

For a time, it looked as if Keynes might be right. In the post-war period, average working hours continued falling, and analysis by the New Economics Foundation has suggested that if this trend had continued we would currently have an average working week of around 34 hours.

But in the 1980s, labour market deregulation, reduced collective bargaining, and slower growth in pay for low income workers put the brakes on working time reductions.

In the UK, 74% of the workforce work an average of 42.5 hours a week. That’s longer than in any EU country, apart from Greece and Austria.

The benefits of a shorter working week

In recent years, the twin challenges of climate change and automation of jobs, along with growing concerns about mental health and work/life balance, have prompted a rethink on working hours.

For some, a shorter working week means compressing forty working hours into four days instead of five.  Others argue that a truly progressive four-day week involves fewer hours at work, with no reduction in pay.

While many employers may recoil at the prospect of paying the same wage for fewer hours, a growing body of evidence presents some strong arguments in favour of this approach:

  • Studies of working hours reductions have demonstrated increases in productivity over four days to compensate for the loss of the fifth working day.
  • Employees with reduced hours spend less time on inefficient tasks, such as meetings.
  • Fewer hours can mean less stress, greater work-life balance and increased motivation.
  • A 2020 study by Autonomy found that a four day working week could potentially reduce energy consumption for the extra non-working day by 10% and emissions intensity by 15%.
  • A shorter working week could have positive effects on gender equality.
  • Maintenance costs can be reduced if all employees are out of the office for an additional day each week.

The four-day week in practice: lessons from New Zealand

In May, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern encouraged employers to consider the four-day working week as one of the ways the country’s economy could be rebuilt following the Covid-19 pandemic. She suggested that reductions in working hours could boost productivity and domestic tourism and improve work/life balance.

In fact, one New Zealand firm has already demonstrated the positive effects of a shorter working week. In March 2018, financial services company Perpetual Guardian began a two-month trial in which its 240 staff worked four eight-hour days, but got paid for five. The experiment was monitored by academics at the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology.

The findings from the trial showed that supervisors were able to maintain performance levels, and most teams recorded a marginal increase. Meanwhile, employees reported improved job satisfaction and a better work/life balance. In addition, many employees expressed a sense of greater empowerment in their work because of the planning discussions that preceded the trial. The success of the trial has now resulted in the four-day week being adopted as company policy at Perpetual Guardian.

The cost of cutting hours

Another working hours trial, in Gothenburg, Sweden, involved nurses in a care home being offered the chance to work six-hour shifts instead of eight, on full pay. While the trial resulted in improvements in staff satisfaction, health and patient care, the city had to employ an extra 17 staff, costing £1.4m. Critics of the scheme said the need to pump additional taxpayers’ money into the trial proved that it was not economically sustainable.

Cost is a potential stumbling block to further working hours reductions. A 2019 report from the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) estimated that the cost to the UK public sector of moving to a four-day week would be £45 billion if attempted immediately, or £17 billion assuming generous productivity gains from shorter hours. The authors argued that such costs would require spending cuts in public services or substantial tax rises.

However, the Autonomy think tank has put the net cost of a 32-hour week at no more than £5.4 billion. Autonomy has also pointed to improvements in job quality for millions of public sector staff, the creation of 500,000 new jobs and reductions in the sector’s carbon footprint as potential benefits of shorter hours.

Burnout or rethink?

In October 2020, the 4 Day Week Campaign, Autonomy and Compass published Burnout Britain, looking at the impact of longer working hours. The report noted that over the past three years the length of the working day has increased steadily, resulting in a 49% rise in mental distress reported by employees. Women are experiencing particular pressures, with 43% more likely to have increased their hours during the Covid-19 crisis.

The report warned that beyond the coronavirus pandemic, the UK faces another serious public health emergency:

“…as well as an impending recession and mass unemployment, we are heading into an unprecedented mental health crisis”

The existing evidence suggests there’s a strong case to be made for reductions in working hours. Apart from the potential productivity gains and improvements in the quality of life, there are savings to be made in the costs of treating mental ill health caused by overwork.

Even so, government and employers will require further proof of the tangible benefits of a shorter working week before committing to permanent changes.

Crisis often accelerates change, and the Covid-19 pandemic has injected new urgency into the debate. Remote working, restrictions in the workplace and the threat of mass unemployment have demonstrated the need to reconsider the old rules that only months ago seemed set in stone.

We are still a long way from Keynes’ vision of a 15-hour week. But 2020 has shown that shining a light on previously unthinkable alternatives to our current ways of working is not only possible, but essential.


Further reading: more on working conditions from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

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