Imagine having to work only four days a week. And for the remaining three days, you can enjoy the liberty to do as you please. Every weekend would be a long weekend.
That’s the workweek structure authors Anna Coote, Aidan Harper and Alfie Stirling champion in their book, The Case for a Four Day Week, published in November 2020.
“Shorter working time should be at the heart of post-pandemic recovery,” Coote and Harper argued in an essay published on the New Economics Foundation (NEF).
According to them, a reduced workweek services both the employee and the business by promoting worker morale and stimulating the economy. Coote and Harper cite studies indicating that quality of work improves when people work fewer hours, which also enhances economic productivity and boosts rates of pay.
In their book, Coote et al argue that a shortened business week will have social and environmental benefits: “Cross national comparisons show that countries with lower average hours of work have a smaller ecological footprint — irrespective of the level of overall consumption.”
A key tenet of The Case for a Four Day Week is restoring the autonomy of the worker.
The authors argue that because people occupy a multitude of roles in their lives, they should be entitled to more flexibility in their working hours to balance their professional, domestic, social duties. For example, shorter workweeks give men more time to fulfill household responsibilities, allowing more women to engage with the labour market.
“Gaining more control over one’s time is just as important as cutting hours,” Coote and Harper said in the article.
The near-universal pivot to remote work has facilitated the possibility to reconfigure a long-standing workweek structure. Coote and Harper noted that workers know what it is like to have more leisure time and more employers know how to reorganize staff time in the wake of the pandemic.
“As governments struggle to cope with COVID-19, going out to work for five full days a week is suddenly the exception rather than the rule,” they said.
The authors noted that the health and economic crisis had disproportionately affected the poor, whose loss of income and access to healthcare have battered their mental and physical health. A four-day week could be a remedial solution to the inequities acutely felt by the marginalized, Coote and Harper suggested.
“It offers a way of sharing a reduced supply of jobs among more people, cutting the numbers of unemployed and releasing others from the multiple strains of long-hours working.”
Most importantly, they note, a four-day structure is not a temporary fix but part of “a long-term transition to a fairer and more sustainable economy.”
The authors argue that reduced working time is not a standalone remedy and should be coupled with increased rates of hour pay so employees would not have to shoulder extra hours to remain solvent.
The long-term overhaul should also address “major structural issues including industrial strategy, welfare state reform and climate mitigation,” they said.
The authors reassured that as idealistic as a four-day workweek sounds, it is very much attainable. In fact, the present five-day business week was hardfought for by trade unions from the mid-19th century onwards.
“An eight-hour, five-day working week was once considered a dangerous fantasy,” Coote and Harper said. Eventually employers themselves realized the change improved business.
According to the authors, countries including Sweden, Germany, the United States and New Zealand have already experimented with shortened working hours in the last two decades. A key ingredient, they said, is the commitment to challenge the status quo.
“Our understanding of what is ‘normal’ is neither natural nor eternal but a human construct that alters in response to new conditions and experience. Today’s ‘normal’ is certainly in flux and the time is ripe for change.”
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