In Depth

Four-day work week: what does Labour want?

Confusion reigns as party split on whether proposal would apply to NHS staff

A row appears to be brewing within the Labour Party over whether NHS staff would be included in the party's plans for a four-day working week. 

The party is proposing to cut the average working week in the UK to 32 hours - equivalent to a four-day week - over a ten-year period. But confusion has emerged after shadow chancellor John McDonnell announced that the new system would “apply to everybody”, including health service staff.

McDonnell's statement contradicts comments made by Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, who has dismissed suggestions that the proposal would apply to NHS workers as “nonsense”.

The apparent split comes as the Tories launch a “fierce attack” on Labour's plans to overhaul working hours, says The Independent.

The Government claims that Labour’s promise to spend £5.5bn more a year on the NHS by 2023-24 than the £20.5bn promised by Boris Johnson would be undercut by the cost of implementing working week, with the bill for extra staff amounting to an estimated £6.1bn.

So what is a four-day working week, and would it be good for the UK?

What is the current working situation? 

In the UK, the average working week is 35 hours, for an average salary of £27,000 a year. In a survey by TotallyMoney.com last year, 60% of the workers who were polled said they don’t have a good work-life balance, and more than half reported feeling stressed as a result of their job.

A government-commissioned report released in 2017 found that 300,000 people leave their jobs each year because of mental health problems, at an annual estimated cost to the UK economy of up to £99bn. 

Is a shorter working week the answer?

According to research outlined in a paper in the American Heart Association's journal Stroke, staff who work long hours have a 29% greater risk of stroke, rising to 45% among those who regularly put in lots of hours over a ten-year period.  

Supporters of a shorter working week argue that the potential health benefits to employees could result in major cost-savings.  

In an article on The Conversation, Dr Miriam Mara, a lecturer in finance at the University of Reading, says: “The benefits of a four-day working week, without loss of pay, can outweigh the cons for both businesses and staff.”

Mara says she “surveyed a number of businesses that have already adopted the four-day working week and found that they were making savings of almost £92bn (around 2% of total turnover) each year”.

Cost savings were reported by more than half of those surveyed, of whom “62% say their staff take fewer days off sick, 63% say they produce better quality work, and 64% are more productive”, she continues.

What would a shorter work week look like?

Sweden made headlines three years ago when nurses in Gothenburg started working six-hour days, rather than the usual eight, under a city-run scheme. 

But despite research showing the benefits of the shortened workdays, nurses at the Svartedalens elderly care facility returned to working eight-hour shifts this February, reports Bloomberg. City officials said the decision not to extend the experiment was largely due to lack of funding to employ extra staff to fill the gaps.

The New York Times notes that “corporate experiments, on the other hand, have yielded clearer - and often more positive - results”.

The newspaper cites a New Zealand estate planning advisory firm with about 240 employees that last year “earned headlines around the world after finding that a trial four-day week had boosted performance”. 

“The two-month experiment was so successful that the business, Perpetual Guardian, made the change permanent,” the paper adds.

Earlier this year, Microsoft Japan reported that sales had been boosted by nearly 40% during an experiment in which staff worked a four-day week on full pay.

The firm's offices were closed on every Friday of August 2019, while full-time staff were given "special leave", which was paid.

The pros and cons of fewer hours 

Less work might not only equate to better health and productivity.

“Countries with short workweeks consistently top gender­ equality rankings,” says Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, in an article for Quartz

The central issue is achieving a more equitable distribution of work, he says, adding:  “Not until men do their fair share of cooking, cleaning and other domestic labour will women be free to fully participate in the broader economy.”

One of the most difficult aspects of a shortened working week is the issue of pay. In order to allow workers to maintain their lifestyles while working less, staff would either all have to be on a universal basic salary, or the hourly wage would need to be raised.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has claimed that Labour’s “chaotic” plan for a four-day week “is a cost the NHS can't afford”, and would “cripple our economy and cost the NHS billions every year”.

Any company switching to a four-day week might also encounter difficulties in dealing with other businesses as a result of being closed during many “standard” working hours.

“Perhaps the biggest obstacle is cultural, rooted in the Lutheran work ethic and our self-valuation according to how hard we strive. It is challenging to tackle such deep-rooted social and personal norms,” says Anna Thomas, who coordinates the Shorter Working Week campaign,  in an article for The Guardian.

And for some, there is also the old adage that “the devil makes work for idle hands”.

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