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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Public transport: lessons from our Nordic neighbours

Public transport is a vital element in the lives of many people. Commuters rely on bus, train, tram and metro services to get them to and from work. Public transport is also crucial for those without cars who need to access education, training, health and social care services.

The state of UK public transport

Recent research by the Urban Transport Group (UTG) has reported important trends in public transport England. Among the findings:

  • Buses remain the most used form of public transport, but service levels and usage have been in decline.
  • There has been rapid growth in rail passenger numbers over the last decade.
  • Patronage on Light Rail systems in England has seen an increase of 44% since 2007/08.

Elsewhere in the UK, there’s a mixed picture on the state of public transport:

  • New legislation introduced by the Scottish Government aims to halt the decline in bus use in Scotland, where passenger numbers fell by 10% over five years. Meanwhile, the rail regulator has demanded improvements to the punctuality of trains in Scotland.
  • Wales has seen a steady decline in bus usage in recent years, although over the same period passenger numbers on trains have increased.
  • Translink, which provides public transport in Northern Ireland has reported that trips by fare-paying passengers increased for the second year in a row, with rail passenger numbers reaching their highest level in 50 years.

Overall, rail passenger numbers in the UK are rising, although the recent disruption to services in the south east and the north of England following timetable changes underlined ongoing dissatisfaction with the standards of service from rail companies. Meanwhile, Britain’s bus network continues to shrink, especially on local routes.

Lessons from Scandinavia

When it comes to public transport, it’s often enlightening to look at how other countries manage. A recent UTG report explored how transport authorities in Sweden, Denmark and Norway are using devolved powers to transform public transport for the better. The report, written by Professor Tom Rye, from the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University, considered various aspects of public transport, including service levels, fares, technological innovations, environmental impact and franchising.

Service levels

The report found that, in comparison with the equivalent city regions in the UK (outside of London), service levels in the Nordic countries are higher, particularly during off-peak times. In rural and low-density suburban areas, a higher level of service is provided since there is an element of cross-subsidy between revenue-generating and loss-making routes. By contrast, in the UK bus deregulation does not allow for comparable levels of cross-subsidy.

Fares

In Scandinavia, as in many other parts of continental Europe, fares are zonal and multi-modal. Passengers can travel on the same ticket by rail, bus, light rail, and in some cities on urban ferries. Journeys are paid for on a stored value or season ticket smartcard. The research found that, in comparison to incomes, fares for frequent users in Scandinavian cities are similar to those in the UK, but season tickets often cover wider geographical areas.

Technological innovations

The report provides examples of significant innovation on vehicle technologies, including smart ticketing. In Norway fares are increasingly supplied as mobile tickets.

Environmental impact

The research found that the Scandinavian countries have ambitious plans for public transport’s role in reducing carbon and toxic emissions. These include low or zero emission bus fleets and modal shifts from other transport modes. Copenhagen’s metro and suburban rail services are a key part of the city’s plan to be the first in the world to be CO2 free by 2025. There will be no diesel-powered buses in Oslo by 2020, and in Sweden Skåne’s bus fleet will run on fossil-free fuel by the same year.

Franchising

Public transport strategies in Norway, Sweden and Denmark are aligned with wider national and sub-national goals for economic development, land use planning and social cohesion. Levels of revenue support for bus services underpin a high quality of service, and levels of public transport use are high (although in Denmark, heavy investment in cycling infrastructure means public transport usage is relatively low).

One of the key features of public transport in Scandinavia is that virtually all bus services have been franchised. Metro and tram services are also provided either through franchising or by the incumbent municipal operator.The report notes that the main impact of franchising of bus services in all three countries has been to reduce costs and increase quality. The authors note that:

“…franchising in these countries and regions gives public sector Passenger Transport Authorities the direct ability to improve aspects of service because they specify and purchase that service from private sector operators. Thus, if they have the resources and are willing to pay for improvements, these can be delivered rapidly, to deliver on policy ambitions.” 

The Scandinavian way

Even as local, devolved and national governments are trying to encourage greater use of public transport, the evidence suggests that in a significant number of British cities – including Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Sheffield, the number of people travelling by public transport is falling.

The UTG report suggests that the Nordic model provides a road map for improvement in the way that UK transport service providers currently deliver urban public transport:

“Scandinavian countries have taken this approach because there is a political and public consensus that public transport is a public service. A public service that has a key role to play in tackling road congestion, reducing greenhouse gases and air pollution. A public service that also spreads the benefits of economic growth and promotes social cohesion through ensuring better connectivity within and between communities – including linking peripheral areas with the main towns and cities that are driving the wider economy.”


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