As Spain flirts with a four-day week, we look at the benefits of working less, from strengthening families to improving gender equality.
The four-day work week is set to become a reality for employees of some companies in Spain, after the government there agreed to launch a pilot project for companies interested in experimenting with the idea.
Details of the trial are still being developed, including the number of companies that will participate and the duration of the trial. However, the government is reported to be considering covering the costs incurred by participating companies (if any) as they switch to a shorter workweek. Employee pay will not be affected.
“With the four-day (32-hour) work week, we launched into the true debate of our time,” said Iñigo Errejón, of the left-wing More Country party, which proposed the idea. “It is an idea whose time has come.”
The pandemic has seen a mindset shift around work-life balance, and not just for employees. Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company, announced in November that would experiment with a four-day work week in New Zealand. Staff will remain on the same pay as part of the one-year probationary period.
Dutch author and journalist Rutger Bregman is among those who advocate a shorter work week. “For some of us, the line between work and what we love is blurred, so our lives wouldn’t change much,” he said. He said Positive News in a previous interview. “But for many, there is a clear distinction between what is work and the rest of life.
“I think we need to work less in certain jobs in order to do more of what matters and what is meaningful and important to society.”
Working harder doesn’t make you more productive, studies suggest. Image: Campaign Creators
Working fewer hours does not necessarily equate to reduced productivity. In fact, according to a 2017 judgment of a six-hour workday in Sweden, the opposite is true. Despite not being able to convince everyone, those behind the Swedish trial claimed that its benefits outweighed the costs.
Daniel Bernmar, a politician who helped conduct the experiment at a retirement home in Gothenburg, told Positive News that the results presented “the completely opposite narrative of the need to work harder and work harder.”
The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has long supported the concept of shorter workweeks. Here, the thinktank’s senior fellow Anna Coote suggests 10 reasons why it could be good for society.
1. A lower carbon footprint
Countries with shorter average hours tend to have a smaller ecological footprint. As a nation, the UK currently consumes far more than its fair share of natural resources. Going off the fast track would take us away from the convenience-driven consumption that is damaging our environment and leave time to live more sustainably.
2. A stronger economy
If managed properly, a shift to a shorter workweek would improve social and economic equality, easing our dependence on debt-driven growth, key ingredients of a robust economy. It would also be competitive: The Netherlands and Germany have shorter workweeks than Britain and the United States, but their economies are just as strong or stronger.
3. Best employees
Those who work less tend to be more productive hour-by-hour than those who regularly push themselves past the 40-hour-per-week point. They are less prone to illness and absenteeism and constitute a more stable and engaged workforce.
4. Lower unemployment
Average work hours may have skyrocketed, but they are not evenly spread across our economy, just as some find themselves working all hours of the day and night, others struggle to find work. A shorter workweek would help redistribute paid and unpaid time more evenly across the population.
5. Improved well-being
Giving everyone more time to devote to their choice would greatly reduce stress levels and improve overall well-being, as well as mental and physical health. Working less would help us all move away from the current path of living to work, working to earn, and earning to consume. It would help us all to reflect on and appreciate the things we really value in life.
Countries with shorter workweeks have smaller ecological footprints, according to NEF. Image: Guy Bowden
6. More equality between men and women
Currently, women spend more time than men in unpaid work. Moving towards a shorter work week as the ‘norm’ would help change attitudes about gender roles, promote a more equitable sharing of paid and unpaid work, and help revalue jobs traditionally associated with women’s work.
7. Higher-quality, affordable child care
The high demand for childcare services is due in part to a culture of long work hours that has gotten out of hand. A shorter workweek would help mothers and fathers better balance their time, reducing the costs of full-time childcare. In addition to reducing the cost of childcare, working fewer hours would give parents more time to spend with their children. This opportunity for more activities, experiences, and two-way teaching and learning would have benefits for mothers and fathers as well as their children.
8. More time for families, friends and neighbors.
Spending less time in paid work would allow us to spend more time and care for each other – our parents, children, friends and neighbors – and to value and strengthen all the relationships that make our lives worthwhile and help build a stronger society.
9. Get more out of later life
A shorter, more flexible workweek could make the transition from employment to retirement much smoother, spread out over a longer period of time. People could reduce their hours gradually over a decade or more. Suddenly switching from long hours to no paid work schedule can be traumatic and often causes illness and premature death.
10. A stronger democracy
We would all have more time to participate in local activities, to find out what is going on around us, to participate in politics, locally and nationally, to ask questions and campaign for change.
This is an update to an article originally published on April 19, 2017. The original version of the 10 reasons section of this article was first published by New Economy Foundation.