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  • Georgina Milner

The four-day work week: Solving the UK's productivity problem?

A policy to help solve mental health issues, physical health issues, productivity and underemployment seems too good to be true, but according to proponents of the 4-day work week, this is exactly what this policy can accomplish. Whilst naysayers suggest fears of higher unemployment and business collapse due to the extra cost of labour, I would remind them that very much the same arguments were put forward throughout the introduction of the weekend.

Whilst productivity has more than doubled since after the second world war, increasing at about 2-2.5% each year from 1971, workers have not seen their hard work reflected in their wages, as productivity has consistently risen faster than wages. But whilst companies and employers earn more and more each year with every extra unit produced, workers do not see any rewards themselves. It is not only inequality of income that has risen drastically throughout the last few decades, but also inequality of time.

Last year 12.5 million work days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety, the biggest cause by far of lost workers. As well as mental health consequences stress can increase the risk of physical problems such as high blood pressure or even strokes, as well as a possible increase in excessive drinking. Some critics have suggested that the shortening of the workweek could actually lead to higher stress levels, as workers are forced to complete the same work in a short time period. However, when companies have conducted studies of the 4-day work week, they have found the reverse effects.

Microsoft Japan tested this and found that the shortened workweeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a massive 40%. Those workers also took 25% less time off during the trial with 92% of employees saying they liked the shorter work week. On top of this, a New Zealand company who trialled the 4-day work week found it so successful, the bosses wanted to make it permanent.

Considering also that two of the largest economic problems Britain faces are low productivity levels and underemployment, a four-day work week could be the solution we’ve been waiting for. About 3.3. million underemployed workers want more hours and a reduced week would force a redistribution of these hours to the benefit of all. Britain’s productivity levels are the lowest of all G7 countries, and clearly stress, lack of motivation and exhaustion all play a major role. Trials of the four-day work week show it would boost productivity and this is something the UK desperately needs.

Whilst this idea may seem like some far off, far left notion, even Richard Nixon during his vice presidency, predicted that the four-day work week was coming “in the not too distant future”. The Netherlands have taken similar approaches, producing the 5th happiest population in the world. Whilst the four-day work week has been slower on the uptake than previously expected, it is currently one of the fastest growing topics of political discussion. With major figures in the UK Labour Party pushing to achieve a 32-hour working week within the decade, as well as gaining a powerful ally in Bernie Sanders, the primary leader of the progressive movement in America, who almost single-handedly catapulted ‘medicare for all’ to the forefront of the debate.

Although whilst supported by some, unfortunately this seems to be low on the list of priorities for leaders, and so it will likely be a long time until our society finally catches up to ideas, not ahead of their time, but too long ignored.

Image - Unsplash.

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