[Originally posted at the International Labour Organization blog "Work in Progress" but has since been deleted.]
Tuesday, 7 October 2014
—Jon Messenger, ILO Team Leader, Working Conditions Group
I’ve been studying working hours since I joined the ILO in 2000 and I’ve never seen anything like it: article after article touting the benefits of a reduced work-week, with business leaders from Google co-founder Larry Page to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, all saying the same thing.
If you ask me, the idea of cutting back the workweek has finally reached critical mass. But it’s hardly a new idea—there are a lot of good reasons for moving towards a shorter, four-day workweek. Here are just a few of them.
1. Working too much is bad for your health
The costs of long working hours in terms of occupational health and safety are staggering. Cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal and reproductive problems, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections, mental health problems, and even higher rates of “all-cause mortality”—in other words, death! If you don’t believe me, ask workers in Japan and Korea, where words like karoshi and kwarosa—which literally mean “death from overwork”—are part of everyday vocabulary. Moving to a four-day workweek would help to reduce these serious health issues and their associated costs.
—The regulation of working time is one of the oldest concerns of labour legislation. Already in the early 19th century it was recognized that working excessive hours posed a danger to workers’ health and to their families. Find out more
2. A shorter workweek would create more and better jobs
While some people are working too much, others aren’t able to work enough—namely those part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs. During the global economic crisis, policies such as Kurzarbeit in Germany encouraged companies to respond to reduced demand for their products and services by reducing working hours instead of cutting jobs. For example, instead of laying-off 20 per cent of the workforce, employers could reduce working hours for all workers by 20 per cent—from five days a week to four. Similar measures can be used in good times as well. For example, when the legal workweek in Korea was cut from 44 to 40 hours per week, there were increases in both employment and productivity.
3. We’re more productive when we work less
In many parts of the world, it’s taken as an article of faith that long working hours equal high productivity. The problem is that it simply isn’t true. On the contrary, many of those countries where workers work the longest have relatively low labour productivity. This is particularly true in work environments that encourage presenteeism, or “face time”, which is all about showing your boss how hard you are working—instead of actually doing the work. But “face time” is waste time: it doesn’t increase your productivity or improve your results. Shorter working hours, by contrast, have been shown to boost workers’ motivation, lower absenteeism, reduce the risk of mistakes and accidents, and discourage employee turnover. So cutting the workweek isn’t just good for workers, it’s good for businesses, too.
“A new study has shown that a shorter workweek was directly related to an increase in overall life satisfaction, or ‘happiness’.”
4. Working less would be good for the environment
With all the talk about “greening” our economies these days, people seldom talk about cutting work hours. Yet, it’s pretty clear that the more we work, the bigger our “carbon footprint” will be. Cutting back on the number of days that we work—and thus the number of times that we have to commute from our homes to our workplaces—is bound to save energy, reduce carbon emissions and ultimately make for a “greener” economy.
5. Working fewer days would make us happier
A number of studies have identified regular long working hours as an important predictor of work-life conflict. This may sound obvious, especially to anyone with kids or elderly parents to care for, but the facts show that long work weeks can lead to more stress and anxiety at home. In fact, a new study has shown that a shorter workweek was directly related to an increase in overall life satisfaction, or “happiness”.
Summing it all up, there are a lot of good reasons for reducing working hours and moving to a shorter workweek. If the workweek is already five days—as it is in most advanced economies—then moving to a four-day workweek doesn’t just make good sense, it is the next step in the long road to a happier, healthier, and more sustainable society.