A national push for a shorter working week, led by the government, would help reduce inequality and improve employee wellbeing, productivity and social cohesion, according to an academic study.
In a paper published in the Journal of Social Policy, sociologist Professor Heejung Chung argues that the adoption of shorter working weeks by individual employers is not enough to bring about changes to society’s approach to employment.
The paper states there is evidence showing how national policies on working hours have increased staff wellbeing and life satisfaction whilst reducing “work-family conflict”. For example, France introduced a move from a 39- to a 35-hour week in 2000, and Portugal legislated for a move from a 44- to a 40-hour week in 1996.
Prof Chung from the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research said: “Without a national move towards a four-day week, long-hours culture will continue to result in many societal costs. State-level interventions can adequately help to address some of the key challenges we face as a society.”
Shorter work week
The research suggests that long-hours cultures push societies to become “work-centric”, which can be detrimental for wellbeing, equality and social cohesion.
It says long-hours cultures encourage people to “pretend to work long hours to ensure their competitive edge in the organisation and the labour market as a whole”.
Campaigners, including those behind a six-month trial of a four-day week set to begin in June, have argued that a shorter week with no loss of pay will improve productivity, but Prof Chung’s paper states that it will also help address urgent societal problems, including the “stigmatisation” of staff who cannot put in long hours or people not in employment.
“Workers using flexible working arrangements are stigmatised because, by using family-friendly arrangements, it signals to others (managers and colleagues) that you have other responsibilities outside of work, limiting your capacity to devote yourself (completely) to work. The irony here is that despite the fact that those who work flexibly, and workers who have better work-life balance, can be more productive and are more committed to the company,” the paper states.
It says the average hours of a male full-time employee in the UK is one of the highest of all European countries (43.7 hours a week in 2019). It cites research from the TUC that found close to 3.5 million people, or 13% of total workforce, put in over 48 hours a week in 2016, much of it as unpaid overtime.
“This can be largely explained by the ideal worker culture dominating our societies, where someone who prioritises work above all else and does not have any other responsibilities outside of work is considered to be the model of a productive and committed worker,” the paper adds.
It warns that relying on employer-led approaches “may result in more segmentation – as we’ve seen in regards to family policy implementations”.
Chung writes: “State intervention can provide a nudge for companies to value workers’ time, and think about what a more efficient use of it is. We have seen some success of such an approach in France, Portugal, and more recently in Korea by imposing restrictions on working hours.
“Law restricting the maximum numbers of working hours, as well as increasing overtime premiums (e.g. by setting overtime premiums of hours worked beyond the four-day/32 hour-week), can be useful in accelerating changes in organisations and the labour market as a whole.”