The future of the left since 1884

Working it out

A four-day working week was one of the ideas which grabbed the headlines in the election campaign. Could it really become a reality? Rayhan Haque takes a look.



John Lennon was once asked at school what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wrote down ‘happy’. The school said he didn’t understand the assignment. He responded by saying they didn’t understand life. There are parallels between this story and how we have come to view economic success. For many years now, the ‘assignment’ has been the unbridled pursuit of growth and high employment, with little regard for anything else. Now of course, every society needs to create prosperity and job opportunities. But like John Lennon’s school, we have been failing to grasp the true meaning behind work and our economy – which is to enable you to enjoy a good life.

A central component of the good life is a healthy worklife balance. Yet the UK is currently working some of the longest hours in Europe (42.5 hours), with only Austria and Greece doing more. We also endure long commutes, with Londoners spending on average 81 minutes a day travelling to work. And a recent study found that 54 per cent of commuters are regularly ‘switched on’, saying that they use the train’s wifi to do work.

This culture of overworking hugely affects organisational productivity, happiness, and wellbeing. Official figures show that nationally 15.4 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety between 2017 and 2018, with workload cited as the biggest cause. Its impact on key frontline professions is also considerable. More than half of Britain’s teachers have a diagnosed mental health problem, according to a study by Leeds Beckett University. The ‘excessive workloads’ on education staff was a key reason cited for the problems.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Three quarters of the public support moving to a four-day week, according to YouGov. Encouragingly, nearly two thirds of businesses also back a shorter working week. Political leaders have also been pushing for change. During the election campaign, the Labour party committed to introducing a 32-hour week for all within a decade, using collective bargaining and increased annual leave.

These strategies would have been important in helping to reduce working hours, as well as increased public sector investment and recruitment. But the scope of their impact would have been limited, as only 13.2 per cent of workers in the private sector are union members and 40 per cent of employees admit to only taking half of their holiday entitlement. And the TUC recently found that more than a million workers are not getting any paid holiday. Workload pressure is one of the most cited reasons for not using statutory holiday.

So for a widespread and lasting reduction to working hours, there must be a focus on boosting productivity and helping businesses to redesign jobs and structure working practices around a shorter 32-hour week. Firms operate in different ways, and some will find the transition to a shorter working week more challenging than others. Adopting a tailored approach, with the right incentives and support, will be crucial. There are a number of ideas that can help achieve this.

Jobs guarantee 

Tackling labour market exclusion with a jobs guarantee based on a shorter working week would see employers creating one-year long job placements anchored around a 32-hour week for the most marginalised groups. There should be a particular focus on disabled people, out of work single parents, young people, the long-term unemployed, and those who have been struggling with homelessness. All job placements must pay a real living wage based on the cost of living.

The government could incentivise the creation of these placements by covering the salary costs for host organisations and supporting the recruitment of participants. It would be an entirely voluntary scheme (for employers and individuals), with organisations able to apply for funding if they clearly demonstrate these jobs placements are “additional”, target the most excluded groups within the labour market, and ensure good work-life balance for participants.

As part of our investigation into poverty and bad work across London, we constantly heard from people that they “couldn’t get a job, as they didn’t have experience, but can’t get experience, because they don’t have a job”. The jobs guarantee aims to break that catch 22 situation. It will also allow employers to design real living-wage-paying jobs around a shorter working week and to test and assess their impact.

Good work funds

The government should also establish a national network of good work funds, that provides help to employers who wish to improve business practices, redesign jobs into good ones, and introduce a shorter working week for their staff without cutting pay. A key focus of the funds would be on supporting businesses to make investments and changes to increase productivity.

A recent study by Henley Business School, found hundreds of UK employers who had moved to a four-day week were now collectively saving £92bn each year, with over 60 per cent seeing productivity increase. These proposed regional funds are designed to help other firms across the country similarly benefit from improving their working practices and reducing working hours. For example, a business would be able to apply for funding to help develop a shorter working week pilot and measure its impact.

It also aims to support the development of a ‘placebased’ approach to reducing working hours, helping local authorities to develop trials by involving key anchor institutions such as schools and large local employers. Forest Gate Community School is currently piloting reduced working week schedules for teachers and students. In this case, the good work funds could support other employers in the area to similarly test a shorter working eek, with the effect being to create a more sustainable community led approach to reducing long hours.

Paid leave for learning 

Everyone should be a learner for life. In a rapidly changing world of work, adaptability, resilience, and skill levels, will be crucial to professional success as well as that of the wider economy. For this reason, there should be a new right to paid time off work to undertake learning and training. Currently employees at large firms only have a ‘right to request’ time off for training, which can easily be rejected by the employer, or if not, only approved on the basis it is done unpaid. Employees at small and medium enterprises have no such right to request.

And according to the Learning and Work Institute, participation in lifelong learning is only 37 per cent – its lowest ever level. The most commonly cited barrier to engaging in learning is work or other time pressures. This new statutory right should guarantee four days of paid leave each year (based on a worker doing full-time hours) for any evidenced learning and training undertaken.

Paid leave for learning will help the lowest earners with the poorest skills improve their life chances, as they are currently the least likely to partake and benefit from lifelong education. Employers will also benefit. Not only will they be able to upskill their workforce, but paid learning leave will help them restructure their operations for a shorter working week in a way that harnesses productivity.

Despite the outcome of the election, a four-day week is still a real possibility. But to get there, we can’t just rely on past methods. Policymakers, in all tiers of government, must also support employers to make the shift. And only by embedding a shorter working week into the culture and practices of how businesses operate, will we build that new economy for the many.

Image credit: Kate Sade

Rayhan Haque

Rayhan Haque is founder of the London Good Work Commission. He is writing in a personal capacity


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