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The case for four day working weeks

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1 — Burnout is real
2 — Where has it worked?
3 — Can tech help us?
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The case for four day working weeks

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By Tali Ramsey - 19 March 2020 / 08H15 - Updated 02 March 2020

Many of us are on the brink of or have well and truly fell into the black hole of burnout, a place that is almost inescapable once entered.

In the UK, we work around 37.5 hours a week over five days (with overtime). By law, we work under the ‘EU Working Time Directive’ that states how employees cannot be made to work over 48 hours a week and have the choice of either opting in or out of working that much. Though, a report from September 2019 suggested that Britons work an average of 42.5 hours a week which is more than the rest of Europe.

Burnout is real

Burnout won’t simply cause you to fall asleep on your commute to work or struggle to crawl out of bed. Psychology Today characterises the problem as a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. It’s not just caused by long hours though, it’s created by not being in control of how you work or working a job that is in conflict with who you are.

What’s worse is that burnout causes many mental and physical health problems and can be linked to almost all of the health issues that you can think of. Heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, headaches, fatigue and heartburn and just some examples.

Suffering like this is the worst enemy of workplace productivity and low productivity and sick days cost the UK economy a whopping £77.5 billion a year. 

Where has it worked?

Shorter working weeks or fewer hours worked during the day have long been thought to boost productivity amongst staff, especially as Fridays, when people are excitedly thinking of the weekend ahead, are considered the least productive days of the week anyway. The national 4 Day Week campaign suggests having an extra day off each week will help to tackle issues including being overworked, unemployment, having a work-life balance and over-consumption.

There are companies across the UK that have already implemented this way of working. London based design studio Normally decided to adopt a permanent four day week after seeing a change in the happiness, health and productivity of its staff. The company allows their staff to take any day off that they wish to and they don’t have to work any extra hours to make up for it. They believe that in doing this, staff members use their time more efficiently and effectively while at work and have been working that way ever since 2014.

Pursuit Marketing based in Glasgow trialled a similar experiment in 2016. The marketing communication agency made Friday a voluntary work day if staff wished to earn more towards their bonus but were not obliged to come in. The company wanted staff to enjoy a better work-life balance and boost morale amongst employees.

Surrey-based Digital agency Lab switched to a four day week in 2018 and haven’t shown any signs of turning back to five days since. The agency saw an increase in energy and enthusiasm amongst staff after bank holiday weekends and wanted to see if they could implement three day weekends on a permanent basis. The company’s joint founder and director noted how the shorter week gives employees “more time to do what they love” and “to recharge and create some distance from their work, which we think will result in higher levels of creativity and productivity.”

Can tech help us?

Due to the sheer amount of work on our plates, not every company can operate on a four day week successfully. With the amount of intelligent technology we use, you’d think that tech would be doing most of the work for us and we’d move on to bigger, better and less strenuous roles, but since the tech boom, workplace productivity has only risen by 1-2%.

Due to emails, Slack, conference calls and not ever being able to switch off, tech has made us have to work more, so how can tech start aiding us in productivity at work? Traditionally, many have feared a scenario where tech takes our jobs, however, in 2018, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) released The Future of Work report which focused on how tech could improve our jobs and help us to work less (if used correctly).

The report predicts that new technologies could make UK employees richer and be the answer to the country’s ‘productivity slump’ if the wealth from technology is shared beyond ‘a few Silicon Valley billionaires.’ The report also mentions the worry among UK employees that managers and shareholders will be the only ones to reap the benefits of new technology.

According to the report’s polls, over 1.4 million people work 7 days a week, 3.3 million people work over 45 hours a week and people who took part in the poll are the most concerned about stress and long hours when it comes to working. To combat this, the TUC suggests investing in new tech that will boost productivity and then sharing the gains from this boost in productivity with employees.

The ultimate aim, they say, is shorter working hours and higher pay, which sounds utopian, but the TUC defend this ambition by pointing out that the UK government have estimated that robotics and autonomous machinery could produce a 15% increase in gross value added (GVA) by 2025. They also mention that consultancy firm PWC has predicted that artificial intelligence (AI) will boost GDP by £200 billion in 2030. It’s all about putting the economic boosts back into businesses so that employers are better off and can work less.

It seems that four-day working weeks are a possibility, at least for some businesses, and the technology to help businesses realise this possibility is already available (or will be soon). So, it’s not so much the technology, but how the people in charge choose to utilise it that could propel more companies into adopting a four day week and seeing a boost in employee productivity.

By

Tali Ramsey

19 March 2020 / 08H15
Updated 02 March 2020
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