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Is it time that we start demanding a shorter working week?

14 Aug 2018

There is a case to be made for all of us spending a little less time working. Far from laziness, it could actually make everyone much more productive.

Last week, an executive at Kepak Convenience Foods was awarded €7,500 by the Labour Court for being required to answer work emails after hours.

Future Human

Gráinne O’Hara submitted evidence that she was responding to emails from her employer after midnight. This was found to be a breach of the Organisation of Working Time Act for two reasons: it led to her working in excess of 48 hours a week and it meant that she was not afforded the uninterrupted 11-hour break between working days to which all Irish workers are entitled.

Employment solicitor Richard Grogan said the ruling was “a massive wake-up call” to employers who attempt to reach employees after they have clocked out.

While everyone has found themselves at one time or another scrolling through work emails at home or staying later at the office to finish up pressing tasks, the arrival of the digital era has brought with it a concerning culture of assuming workers should be ‘always on’.

Industriousness has always been an admired trait but one could argue that this admiration is at times misplaced. It’s good to be hardworking but people often conflate working hard with working oneself down to a powder in the hopes of achieving professional goals.

But what if it turns out that the solution to being the best you can be in your career isn’t a punishing working schedule? What if the key to being as productive as possible is working less?

Working less is more

A New Zealand-based trust management company, Perpetual Guardian, recently completed a landmark eight-week trial that saw it reduce the working week to four days.

The trial was a roaring success by all accounts. There was a marked increased (24pc) in the number of employees who felt they had a good work-life balance. Workers worked harder when they were in the office and enjoyed their tasks even more than before.

The extra day off gave workers the opportunity to attend to responsibilities and errands, meaning they weren’t distracted by these commitments while they were at work. Stress decreased by 7pc and overall life satisfaction increased by 5pc.

If a recent joint study undertaken by Globoforce and IBM is anything to go by, Perpetual Guardian can expect a healthy boost to its bottom line to boot, as companies with the happiest employees report the greatest returns on assets.

Less is more in the working world. Volume doesn’t necessary lead to productivity – this is no better demonstrated when you consider that South Korea has one of the lowest rates of labour productivity despite its culture of working long hours. Similarly, Greece, which has one of the longest working weeks in the OECD, is at the bottom in the measure of GDP per hour worked.

In Sweden, a retirement home ran a two-year trial of six-hour working days. The trial made employees happier, more productive and less likely to call in sick. However, the scheme was decried as prohibitively expensive due to the amount of new staff that had to be brought in to make up for the reduced working weeks.

This differs from the New Zealand trial. The discrepancy in results, so argues Briony Harris writing for the World Economic Forum, could be attributed to the fact that nursing and caregiver roles require a continued presence.

For office workers, the situation is different. According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion, and the New Zealand trial seems to affirm that. The workers’ schedules didn’t change and yet productivity didn’t dip.

What next?

There is mounting evidence that reducing stress levels and improving work-life balance in employees has myriad economic benefits. So, why are countries slow to begin incorporating this goal into workplace legislation?

Bar the aforementioned efforts to change the working week and a few other similar trials in other countries, there aren’t many examples of governments that have drastically overhauled how we work. It could be argued that the last time working life changed significantly was when workers were given weekends at the start of the 20th century.

So much has changed in politics, history and technology since then, and yet the structure of the work week has remained untouched. Is this the next big change coming down the pipeline? Is it time that society starts moving towards a shorter working week?

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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