First published by The Independent, 9th February 2017
As the beleaguered leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn might be expected to work every waking hour to hold the Tory administration to account and put Labour back in power. However, this week Private Eye suggested that the Labour leader favours a four day working week. This claim has since been rebuked by the Labour leader’s office, but if even if this were true, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
In Britain, we’re gluttons for punishment. With the right wing media forever peddling bile about scroungers and slackers, we work some of the longest hours in Europe. On average, Brits put in 43.6 hours a week, more than the European average of 40.3 and significantly more than France’s limit of 35 hours.
The lunch hour has all but disappeared. Meeting clients or partners during lunchtime to woo them over an overpriced salad does not constitute a break, and neither does stuffing down a sandwich and crisps at your desk, eyes transfixed fixed on emails. Those who work through lunch might be seen as virtuous, but they’re actually doing themselves a disservice as inactivity results in ill-health and more time off work sick.
Professor John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health has called for the end of the five day week. According to Ashton, a four day working week would lead to a reduction in cases of high blood pressure and mental illness caused by stress and overwork. Sleep problems, sluggishness and low productivity are all consequences of working long hours without enough time to rest and recuperate. In 2015/16, workers in Britain took 11.7 million days off due to stress. These lost days represent a huge economic cost.
Contrary to public opinion, long hours do not actually facilitate productivity. How many of us are guilty of falling into a daze in front of our computer screens, flicking between work, social media, games, gossip sites and listicles, and not actually getting that much done? High productivity is shown to correlate with shorter working hours, because employees have adequate time to rest and can return to their tasks with new energy, perspective and creativity.
Working such long hours also decreases the time available for people to spend with their partners, children, parents and friends. To cultivate positive relationships and enjoy a strong, happy family life, it’s essential that we’re able to make time for the people we love.
Many well-paid, professional jobs demonstrate an outdated inflexibility when dealing with employees who have children or look after elderly parents. These caring responsibilities overwhelmingly fall to women and account of an overrepresentation in part-time or shift work, because it fits around their care commitments. It also financially penalises them for having obligations outside of the workplace. 80 per cent of those working in the low paid but relatively flexible caring and leisure sectors are female.
The belief that we are the sum of our jobs is incredibly damaging, particularly when there aren’t enough jobs to go around. The treatment of Job Seeker’s Allowance claimants by Department of Work and Pensions staff legitimises the idea that if you’re not in work, you’re not a person deserving of respect or dignity. If you’re someone who’s disabled or too unwell to work, it’s easy to feel valueless. Of course, those who work hard should be rewarded, but the most difficult and demanding jobs (caring for the elderly and disabled, nursing, social work, being a prison officer) are often low paid and viewed as low status.
A four day working week would actually create jobs and boost Britain’s economy. Instead of having millions of workers putting in more than 45 hours a week, there could be a fairer redistribution of the workload. Having more people in work would slash Britain’s benefit bill and a shorter week would reduce stress and increase the time available to exercise, benefitting the NHS.
Everyone is entitled to a work life balance. If you don’t have one, you burn out. Excessive working hours are not indicative of productivity or even of financial reward. If Jeremy Corbyn wants to take a four day week, then he’s setting a healthy and positive example.