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The five-day working week is an arbitrary invention

The 19th century five-day working week has no place in the 21st, says John Howkins


We do not need to work five days a week, whether in a workplace or at home, in order to produce what society wants, or to satisfy our need for meaningful work. 

The current five-day week is an arbitrary invention, designed around factory routines. It bears no relation to the work done before the Industrial Revolution and there is no reason why it should bear any relation to work in the future. 

The argument is that fewer and more flexible hours lead to a more thoughtful workforce, less absenteeism and higher productivity. People who have a chance to slack off are more convivial and more engaged. Because they are less tired, their concentration improves and accidents become fewer. 

Working any more than eight hours a week gave no additional boost to mental health

A shorter week might lead to a rebalancing of male/ female ratios and more equal pay, and a new sense of the commonality between paid work and unpaid work. 

Let’s share the work around more equally; in particular between those who are overworked and those who are underemployed. The 4DayWeek Campaign manifesto says it is the best way to counter low productivity, gender inequality, low paid and precarious work, automation and pollution.

A Indeed/YouGov survey reported that three-quarters (74 per cent) of the UK workforce believe they could do their job to the same standard in four days as they do in five. 

Support for a four-day working week rises to four out of five (79 per cent) among millennials.

A major study by the University of Cambridge and the University of Salford analysed the working habits of 71,000 people over nine years.

It found that ‘when people moved from unemployment or stay-at-home parenting into paid work of up to eight hours per week, their risk of mental health problems was reduced by an average of 30%’. 

What is remarkable is that, on average, working any more than eight hours a week gave no additional boost to mental health. This rather undercuts the claim that people need a full-time job to maximise well-being; some do, but many do not. More hours did continue to produce higher levels of satisfaction, however. The gains in satisfaction were higher for men than for women, who had to work slightly longer to achieve the same result. 

As a result of their findings, say the authors, ‘there is scope for the working week to be radically reduced’. Co-author Brendan Burchell says, ‘If the UK were to plough annual productivity gains into reduced working hours rather than pay rises, the normal working week could be four days within a decade.’ 

European countries that work the fewest hours (Germany, Netherlands and Norway) have the highest levels of satisfaction and productivity, while the countries that work the longest hours, such as Britain and Greece, have the highest levels of job-related stress and the lowest productivity. 

It is sobering to discover that Germany could stop work at Thursday lunchtime and still produce as much as Britain does in five days. 

Japan works even longer hours than Britain and has even lower productivity. It has a special word, ‘karoshi’, for death by overwork, which reportedly claims 10,000 people a year. 

Companies that have a shorter working week, and whose employees take longer holidays, report on average significant gains in well-being as well as productivity, and less absenteeism. 

John Howkins is the author of Invisible Work: The Future of the Office is in Your Head, published by September Publishing

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