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Future of Work: The 4 Day Work Week

The implications of long hours have been clearly shown in areas such as heart disease and stress, but we’re clearly a long way from achieving the leisurely future predicted by John Maynard Keynes, where work would be one of choice rather than necessity.

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 

The concept of the 4-day work week is in many ways not a new phenomenon, with early examples emerging back in 2008.  It’s a concept that came to widespread attention in 2019 however, with the announcement from the British Labour party that they wanted the UK to move towards a 32-hour work week within a decade.  The pledge was no doubt buoyed by the results of experiments undertaken by Microsoft’s Japan office, which showed that a 4-day work week not only resulted in happier workers, but also more productive workers.

The trial coincided with a 40% boost in productivity, along with a 25% reduction in time off, a 23% reduction in electricity usage, and a near unanimous show of support from employees for the initiative to be made permanent.

Opponents of such an approach worry that instead of forcing people to do away with the various inefficient activities that research suggests can make up to 60% of our typical working day, we will instead be forced to cram five-days work into four.  They cite industries such as healthcare, which typically require doctors and nurses to perform fewer, but longer, shifts, with burnout across the sector at terminal levels.

Despite these concerns, support among the public appears strong, with a YouGov survey conducted around the time of the UK elections showing 63% of Britons supported the move, which was the highest of all seven European nations surveyed.  The researchers ponder whether this is because the UK currently has the longest working hours in Europe.

How much work is enough?

With productivity levels quite so low, the proposal has, at least, prompted a discussion around how much work we need to do, and how we can be productive in the hours we do commit to work.  For instance, research from the University of Cambridge recently revealed that we only need 8 hours of work to enjoy the psychological and social benefits we derive from work.

The findings emerged after examining data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which captures both the number of hours people work and their mental health and happiness with life.  The data clearly showed that working had a positive impact on our mental health, with working 8 hours per week associated with a 30% reduction in mental health issues. What was interesting was that there seemed to be no additional boost from working more than 8 hours.  Indeed, those working either 32 hours or 40 hours were no happier than those working just 8 hours.

“We have effective dosage guides for everything from Vitamin C to hours of sleep in order to help us feel better, but this is the first time the question has been asked of paid work,” the researchers explain.  “We know unemployment is often detrimental to people’s wellbeing, negatively affecting identity, status, time use, and sense of collective purpose. We now have some idea of just how much paid work is needed to get the psychosocial benefits of employment – and it’s not that much at all.”

Getting the balance right

If 8 hours is all we need from a mental health perspective, are there similarly optimum levels of work from a productivity perspective?  Some studies have suggested that might be the case, but given the huge number of variables involved, it’s far from clear cut.  What is far clearer are the large number of negative consequences of working long hours.

The implications of long hours have been clearly shown in areas such as heart disease and stress, but we’re clearly a long way from achieving the leisurely future predicted by John Maynard Keynes, where work would be one of choice rather than necessity.

Indeed, one study from researchers at Boston University found that people, and especially men, would often brag about the long hours they worked.  What was interesting, however, was that most of these boasts were shallow, and many were actively trying to reduce their hours, such as by taking on less business travel, but these efforts were done under the radar of their boasts about their hard work.

With no one really noticing that those people weren’t working as many hours as they claimed, it does reiterate the fact that our work time could be spent considerably more efficiently than perhaps it is today.  The challenge is that when reduced hours were tried, those employees who took up the offer were sidelined from the best projects, promotions and pay rises.

In control

The study also highlighted the different perceptions of work, and indeed of busyness, between the genders, and perhaps research from Columbia Business School shows the way forward.  It finds that true happiness with our working life comes when we have control over it.  Regardless of whether people worked long or short hours, if they were in control over their schedule, then they were generally happy.

This is perhaps important to consider, as INSEAD research into the gig economy found that people were generally happier than their salaried peers, but usually because they had control over their hours, and were working as much as they wanted to.  This was emphasized by a study from the University of Stirling, which highlighted the mental health problems encountered by gig economy workers who wanted to work more hours than they actually were.

With the rise of technologies such as AI and robotics, it’s quite possible that people will experience forced under-employment, which if these studies are any guide, will result in far more mental distress than if people voluntarily chose to work fewer hours.

“In the next few decades we could see artificial intelligence, big data and robotics replace much of the paid work currently done by humans,” the Cambridge researchers remind us.  “If there is not enough for everybody who wants to work full-time, we will have to rethink current norms. This should include the redistribution of working hours, so everyone can get the mental health benefits of a job, even if that means we all work much shorter weeks.”

While their argument that fewer working hours might be good, and their suggestion that micro-jobs would be as beneficial as the full-time jobs we enjoy today has its supporters, there is also a strong argument that if such a change is forced upon people, then the gains they believe are there will not be realized at all.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!