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Less work, more play

The Beatles sang about eight days a week and for many of us we feel that’s a good description of working life today, especially at this time of year when it’s still dark when we get up and go home, making is feel like moles on a treadmill.

The Working Time Directive introduced a limit to weekly working hours, though controversially retained an individual opt-out clause allowing individual employees to work in excess of 48 hours a week if they chose to do so. France introduced the 35 hour working week in 2000, a reduction of four hours on the previous arrangement. While this was held out as the Holy Grail across Europe, it has only been partially successful and some relaxation (in the direction of more hours) has had to be allowed.

Work-life balance is a very present concern. Recently I read in a news article that The Gambia has shortened the work week to four days for public sector workers. The amount of work won’t diminish – work will start at 8am and end at 6pm, Monday to Thursday, but they’ll have Fridays off. This pattern seems to work in the Netherlands, where one in three men either works part-time or 40 hours in four days.

But it doesn’t work for everyone. In 2008, about 17,000 government officials in the US state of Utah started working four 10-hour days to cut costs. The experiment didn't last: the five-day week was reinstated in 2011. Many employees loved it, but others had issues with childcare, and the service users - members of the tax paying local community - understandably raised questions over the availability of services on Friday. The projected savings were also significantly higher than the actual savings and there was no evidence of increased productivity.

The argument that a shorter working week means there would be more jobs, leading to reduced unemployment was part of France’s rationale for the 35 hour week. It hasn’t worked out that way, though that may well be in part to employment legislation that makes it so difficult to dismiss that French employers are quite simply refusing to employ.

Professor Cary Cooper, an expert in organisational psychology and health, says that while the pattern of travelling in to work and doing long hours while there is not the best use of our time, given the new technology means they means many people could work from home, he’s not persuaded that working compressed hours is an especially good idea either.

Professor Cooper thinks the answer lies in giving employees greater flexibility. Many employers are very happy to consider flexible working options, provided it’s not a one-way street. A 2011 employment trends survey found 96% of respondents offered at least one form of flexible working, while 70% offered three or more. But a four-day working week would be quite impossible for many small businesses, which are expected to be available five or six days a week in most cases and wouldn’t have the resources to provide additional cover and still remain viable.

Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy for the New Economics Foundation discussed the idea of a radically shortened working week in a blog in February 2010. She proposes the ideal working week of 21 hours. In principle it is quite achievable, but only if people trim their lifestyle accordingly. If you work less you will earn less. If employee expectations are unrealistic i.e. wanting to work fewer hours but still have the same lifestyle, this would mean employers would have to use more resource to achieve the same level of productivity, meaning a reduction in margins and thus profit. It doesn’t compute in many cases.

It’s clearly a discussion that will continue for years to come and we have some way to go.

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