Although ongoing political wrangles have prevented an actual date being set, political parties are gearing up for a General Election by making bold claims and persuasive promises. Working hours has become a new battle ground in the race to win voters and Labour announced its support for a 32 hour working week, with designs on ‘re-balancing with a greater quality of life’ in mind.
The proposed policy comes at a time when full-time workers in the UK work longer hours (42.5) and the EU average (41.2) but less than American counterparts (44).
The prospect has sent shockwaves through the UK’s business sector, as Labour’s intention is to firstly reduce the number of hours public sector staff work by 2030 to 32, which would then go on to set a precedent for the whole economy to follow.
The 32 hour week isn’t a new concept, however. France introduced a legislated national working limit of the same amount in 1998 but it was rendered ‘broadly ineffective by an accumulation of exceptions and loopholes’ says economic historian Lord Skidelsky.
Although 32 hours can be expressed as five shorter working days, recent headlines have been grabbed by the allure of a four-day week. Again, it’s not a new idea and some pilot studies have proved a shorter week leads to greater motivation, reduced fatigue and productivity gains among staff. Simply Business – a Northampton-based call centre – is joining the revolution ahead of Labour’s plans, revealing in September 2019 that it would move 250 staff to a four-day week, without loss of pay.
What staff gain in time and wellbeing, however, is usually offset by a financial hit. Take, for instance, the restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham. Although its staff gained 48 days per year more in leisure time and saw no decrease in their salaries or benefits, the restaurant itself made a loss of £100,000 when it switched to only opening four days a week.
Four-day weeks can be complex to introduce and do not suit every industry or job. The thought of reducing the hours of accomplished workers is a frightening prospect for industries where there is a skills shortage, while small businesses may struggle to pay staff the same amount of money for less income-producing activity in return.
But for every critic is a supporter of the four-day week. One of the loudest advocates is Will Stronge, co-director of the thinktank Autonomy. His article for The Guardian in September 2019 suggested working less is the future and that there is wider business momentum gathering behind the four-day week, which he says is ‘a sign of best practice’.
While Stronge refers to the ‘second age of the machine’ – suggesting automation, AI and technological advances should facilitate a shorter week – Twitter’s Vice President for Europe and wellness advocate, Bruce Daisley, says stressed workers need a four-day week to alleviate the pressures of modern work. Daisley cites evidence that overwork is detrimental to our mental health, increases ill health (therefore putting pressure on healthcare systems) and even leads to early death.
Whatever your thoughts on 32-hour caps and four-day weeks, the arguments for and against could prove hypothetical if Labour fails to win power. It’s a case of ‘watch this space’.