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.


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An ageing workforce and growing emotional demands call for more sustainable employment

People Turning in Gears - Synergy

As a result of the global demographic challenge of an ageing population and the increasing diversity of working life, there has been a growing focus on sustainable work over the life course which has also placed greater emphasis on the importance of the quality of work and working conditions. As more and more people are having to work longer before retirement, it is important that they are able to do so.

A recent Eurofound report examined working conditions and their implications for worker’s health. Its findings confirmed a clear link between working conditions and the health and well-being of workers, highlighting the need to make work more sustainable.

Working conditions, health and wellbeing

Eurofound’s report found that this relationship can be depicted in a model based on the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), showing that health outcomes are the result of two processes: health-impairing processes (exhaustion) and motivational processes (engagement).

Health-impairing processes are associated with exposure to adverse work demands which tend to increase exhaustion, while motivational processes are associated with access to work resources that support engagement.

Such demands can include:

  • physical risks
  • work intensity
  • work extensity (long working hours)
  • emotional demands
  • social demands

Such resources can include:

  • social resources
  • work resources
  • rewards

It is noted in the report that the demand and resources model partly explains how well-designed jobs – characterised by high rewards, high work and social resources and suitable levels of demands – translate into better health: “Whereas job demands are linked to higher levels of exhaustion (which, in turn, are related to poorer health), job resources are associated with higher levels of work engagement (which, in turn, are related to better health and well-being).”

It is therefore suggested that as job control, social resources and rewarding working experiences all have positive effects, employers should be encouraged to introduce initiatives that focus on motivational aspects of work.

As recently highlighted, the discipline of worker health has traditionally focused on worker exposures to various workplace hazards. However, this has more recently broadened to include the concept of worker well-being, which is seen as increasingly important. Not only is it important for the individual but it is an important determinant of productivity for enterprise and society as well. Indeed, the Eurofound report highlights this growing importance.

Emotional demands

While the report notes that physical hazards have a direct effect on worker’s health and wellbeing and are undoubtedly remain important, these have not increased, but emotional demands have. This, it is argued, underlines the growing importance of psychosocial risks. It argues:

“In the context of ageing societies and services-dominated economies, it becomes more pressing to address these risks as the incidence of exposure increases.”

Other research has also highlighted the significance of emotional demands at work in relation to health. One recent study in the Danish workforce, for example, found emotional demands at work predicted a higher risk of long term sickness absence.

With the growing need for long-term care in ageing societies, it is argued that these demands are likely to increase further and, therefore, require particular attention. Different groups of people also face varying demands and are considered in the report. In particular, gender differences are considered throughout – highlighted as significant in some areas

Gender

The report found that men tend to report better health and wellbeing, and fewer health problems and better sleep quality than women. Men were also found to report fewer days of sickness absence and fewer days of presenteeism.

This is consistent with other research findings that show ill-health is more prevalent in women. One study exploring the association between work-related stress in midlife and subsequent mortality, and whether sense of coherence (measured as meaningfulness, manageability and comprehensibility) modified the association, found that occupation-based high job strain was associated with higher mortality in the presence of a weak sense of coherence – a result that was stronger in women than in men.

The Eurofound report findings show that as women often work in sectors like health or education, they are especially exposed to the psychosocial risks associated with these emotionally demanding jobs.

The report also notes that workers under 25 are most likely to face high demands while having the least access to work resources, and health sector employees in particular, face high emotional and social demands. It is therefore suggested that there should be investment in working conditions for particular risk groups, such as occupations requiring lower skills levels, reporting job insecurity, or witnessing workplace downsizing. Measures to promote high union density, good employment protection and gender equality which are likely to improve working conditions and contribute to workers’ health and wellbeing are also highlighted.

Way forward

The findings of the Eurofound report, and indeed other research, highlight the need to look beyond the ‘traditional’, narrower framework of occupational health and safety to include the psychosocial risks such as emotional demands, along with motivational aspects of work. This calls for a reduction in health-impairing conditions and a fostering of health-promoting ones.

Of course, the world of work will continue to change, particularly in an increasingly digital world. However, striking the right balance between demands and resources through coordination between different policy fields could contribute to a higher quality of working life that is sustainable, regardless of the ever changing environment.


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“Shifting into reverse” – the global gender gap

Gender equality

Image by GDJ via Creative Commons

By Heather Cameron

“Gender parity is shifting into reverse” – this was the finding of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) most recent annual Global gender gap report, published last month.

This is the first time progress, albeit slow, towards gender parity has stalled since the WEF started measuring it in 2006.

Widening gap

On current trends, the overall global gender gap can be closed in exactly 100 years, compared to 83 years reported in last year’s report.

The economic situation is even worse.

Last year, we reported on the gender pay gap, which highlighted the WEF’s 2016 findings that the global economic gender gap will take 170 years to close. This year’s WEF report indicates that women may now have to wait over 200 years to achieve equality in the workplace:

“given the continued widening of the economic gender gap already observed last year, it will now not be closed for another 217 years.”

According to the report, the gaps between women and men on economic participation and political empowerment remain wide. Just 58% of the economic participation gap has been closed – a second consecutive year of reversed progress and the lowest value measured by the Index since 2008 – and about 23% of the political gap, unchanged since last year against a long-term trend of slow but steady improvement.

For the other indicators, the 144 countries covered in the report have closed 96% of the gap, on average, in health outcomes between women and men, unchanged since last year, and more than 95% of the gap in educational attainment, a slight decrease on last year.

Overall, an average gap of 32.0% remains to be closed worldwide in order to achieve universal gender parity, compared to an average gap of 31.7% last year.

The most challenging gender gaps remain in the economic and health spheres.

Country-level

The situation is more nuanced at the country and regional level, however. And the report highlights that a number of regions and countries have crossed “symbolic milestones” for the first time this year.

Countries that improved the economic gender disparity included France and Canada. The UK was one of the most improved this year in general, up five places on last year to 15th place. The report also notes that the UK has made notable progress on political empowerment and women in ministerial positions.

Despite this, the UK still performed more poorly than many other developed countries in a number of categories and things still need to be improved on economic and political participation in the UK.

The lack of any of the G20 nations within the top 10 has also been noted, suggesting that economic power does not necessarily equate to better gender equality. The WEF estimate that the UK could add $250bn to its gross domestic product (GDP) by achieving gender parity.

Final thoughts

Clearly, the importance of gender parity cannot be ignored, not only because it’s unfair but because it can also lead to better economic performance.

The WEF report argues that a key avenue for further progress is the closing of occupational gender gaps, which will require changes within education and business sectors and by policymakers.

It still appears to be the case that higher earning jobs are more commonly held by men. And with recent research suggesting that there is gender bias in job adverts across the UK, such changes can’t come soon enough.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our other posts on the gender pay gap and the place of women in the ‘changing world of work’.

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Gender pay gap – will it ever close?

égalité des sexes

By Heather Cameron

Last Thursday was labelled ‘Equal Pay Day’ – the last day of the year women effectively stop earning relative to men – just one day later than the previous year.

According to the Fawcett Society, this means women are in effect ‘working for free’ until the end of the year as a result of the gender pay gap.

Given that it is 46 years since the Equal Pay Act was introduced ‘to prevent discrimination, as regards terms and conditions of employment, between men and women’, it is dispiriting that considerable inequalities remain between men and women’s pay.

How much of a gap?

The Fawcett Society has calculated the current gender pay gap for full-time workers at 13.9%.

Recent research by Deloitte suggests that the gender pay gap will not close until 2069 unless action is taken to tackle it now. It shows that the hourly pay gap between men and women is closing at a rate of just 2.5 pence per annum, and in some cases is even widening.

The study also notes that men receive considerably higher average pay even in female-dominated occupations, such as teaching and caring.

And new research from New Policy Institute (NPI) found that, although things have been improving with higher employment rates and increases in earnings, the formal employment rate for women is still lower and female weekly earnings are still less than 70% of male weekly earnings.

The research also highlighted that significant barriers continue to prevent women entering the labour market, particularly when it comes to high-paid, secure, quality jobs.

The overall global situation would appear even worse as the most recent Global gender gap report from the World Economic Forum indicates that the gap could take 170 years to close.

In terms of the economic impact, the gender pay gap has been highlighted as a particular issue in relation to the UK’s low productivity problem.

It has been suggested that equalising women’s productivity could add almost £600 billion to the economy, and that 10% could be added to the size of the economy by 2030 if the millions of women who wanted to work could find suitable jobs.

Causes

The gender pay gap has been attributed to four main causes by the Fawcett Society:

  • Discrimination – often women are still paid less than men for the same job and unfair treatment remains common, especially around maternity
  • Unequal caring responsibilities – women continue to play a greater role in caring for family
  • A divided labour market – women are more likely to be in low-paid and low-skilled jobs
  • Men in the most senior roles – men continue to make up the majority of those in the highest paid and most senior roles

Deloitte’s research similarly highlights that women are disproportionately more likely to enter low paid industries or sectors.

However, it emphasises that one contributory factor to the gender pay gap occurs before labour market entry, when boys and girls decide what to study at school and in further education. Three times more boys than girls take computing and 50% more boys than girls study design and technology.

This is significant because the gap in starting salaries between men and women who have studied Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, and who go on to take jobs in these sectors, was found to be far smaller.

Way forward

Deloitte’s research therefore suggests that increasing the participation of females in STEM subjects and careers could help reduce the gender pay gap.

Nevertheless, it also notes that as there are several causes, no single measure will be enough to eradicate it.

The government’s policy to introduce mandatory gender pay gap reporting for all large companies employing more than 250 employees has been welcomed as a step forward. But there are concerns this is not enough. The NPI research suggests that it could go further, with extension of the duty to companies employing 50 people.

In addition, encouraging take-up of the voluntary living wage and boosting pay in sectors that have been traditionally low paid and have predominantly employed women are suggested as ways to help speed up the reduction of the gender pay gap.

The NPI report calls for ‘a multi-dimensional policy response, sitting underneath a clear gender focused employment strategy’ to reduce gender inequalities and the subsequent pay gap.


If you enjoyed reading this, why not take a look at some of our other posts on equalities issues

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Apprenticeships – inclusive and accessible to all?

AZUBI und Ausbildner

By Heather Cameron

The government is “committed to making apprenticeships inclusive and accessible to all”. But, unfortunately, this is not currently the case. Just 10.6% of the starting apprenticeships in England in 2014/15 came from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, compared to 14.6% of the general population. And while women are well represented overall, there are significant disparities across sectors.

In response to a recent Ask a Researcher enquiry, we looked into the topic of diversity in apprenticeships and, in particular, the barriers that face some groups such as women and ethnic minorities.

Occupational gender segregation

Occupational gender segregation in apprenticeships was found to be a particular issue. Research has shown that, despite women apprentices having outnumbered men since 2010, young women miss out on certain opportunities as a result of this issue. For example, women comprise 94% of childcare apprentices but under 4% of engineering apprentices. And these figures have hardly changed in the last decade.

According to recent research, occupational gender segregation contributes to women losing out at every level with apprenticeships:

  • Women tend to work in fewer sectors
  • Women receive lower pay than men
  • Women are less likely to receive training as part of their apprenticeship
  • Women are more likely to be out of work at the end of their apprenticeship

In terms of the barriers facing women specifically, a lack of awareness of the careers advice and information services available, or of the funding available for training; formal entry qualifications; and child care and other caring responsibilities have all been cited.

Under-representation

The other significant issue highlighted by the research is the under-representation of BAME groups. The overwhelming majority (88.5%) of apprenticeship starters in 2014/15 were White and the provisional figures for 2015/16 are similar at 88.1%. This compares to just 10.6% of apprenticeship starts from BAME groups in 2014/15, with provisional figures for 2015/16 down slightly at 10.4%.

Similarly to women, BAME apprentices are also under-represented in specific sectors. Fewer than 3% of apprentices in construction, land based industries, science, engineering and manufacturing, building services engineering, and hair and beauty came from a BAME background.

Barriers facing ethnic minorities include a lack of awareness around the benefits of apprenticeships and parental influence. A study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has therefore called for action to increase the awareness of apprenticeships among ethnic minority young people and their parents.

Progress

Despite the issues of occupational gender segregation and ethnic minority under-representation, it should be noted that progress has been made.

The most recent statistics on apprenticeships in England show that: there were 12% more apprenticeship starts in 2015 than in the previous year and that achievements increased by 1% over the same period; overall, between 2013/14 and 2014/15 the number of apprenticeship starts increased across all age groups except for people aged under 16 and those aged 18 to 24; the number of apprenticeship starts for learners with learning disabilities and/or difficulties was up by 12%; and although an overwhelming number of apprenticeship starters were White, the number of non-White apprenticeship starters increased by 17%.

Way forward

The government ambitiously aims to deliver 3 million quality apprenticeships by 2020, to reflect the widest spectrum of society. And it has pledged to increase the proportion of apprentices from black and minority ethnic backgrounds by 20% from 10% to 11.9%. However, no specific targets have been set for gender diversity.

The research suggests that formal entry criteria should be removed where not necessary to encourage better uptake of different apprenticeships by women, and awareness of apprenticeships should be increased with initiatives targeting ethnic minority young people and their parents. Other recommendations include introducing diversity targets within organisations, providing more part-time and flexible apprenticeships and providing better advice and support to apprentices at all stages.

Perhaps if such additional actions are taken, the government will move closer to its commitment of making apprenticeships truly inclusive and accessible to all.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in our previous blog on higher apprenticeships.

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Girls need STEM role models

female scientist

by Stacey Dingwall

The fact that women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers in the UK is not news – figures released by the government in August 2013 revealed that despite making up 46% of the UK workforce, just 15.5% of the STEM workforce are women. A new report published by ScienceGrrl, a not-for-profit grassroots organisation which aims to celebrate women in science, has highlighted perhaps one of the biggest reasons why there are so few women working in, and girls aspiring to work in, STEM related fields – a lack of role models.

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The world celebrates women today but when will society catch up?

we can do it poster

by Donna Gardiner

Saturday 8 March is International Women’s Day, when people around the globe will come together to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women.

Here at the Knowledge Exchange, we thought we would celebrate in the way we know best – by rounding up some of the most important recent research on gender equality issues. Continue reading