A systemic approach to a shorter working week

Lord Skidelsky’s new report on the shorter working week argues that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work as different sectors and roles face different challenges.

working families 2019


Imagine you could move to a shorter working week on more or less the same money as you now earn? Could automation and the ability to hive off some of the more routine work we all do move this vision a step closer?

Some employers have already moved to a four-day week and have got a lot of publicity in the process, but a new report argues that a more systemic approach is needed to ensure the benefits of a shorter working week reach a broad number of employees.

The How to achieve shorter working hours report for the Labour party written by Lord Robert Skidelsky, co-author of How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, argues that moving to a shorter working week requires long-term public investment, social partnerships between employers, employees, government and unions and a watchful eye on the impact of automation.

The report covers the history of the UK’s working hours, arguing that the failure of the 1970s vision of more leisure time is in large part due to productivity concerns, low wages, increased job insecurity and weaker union power.

Of late, however, there has been increased interest in a shorter working week as a result of the stagnation in working hours and increased automation. Skidelsky cites figures showing full-time UK workers work on average 42.5 hours a week, longer than all but two EU countries. The UK has higher levels of part-time workers, but Skidelsky says it is important to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary part-time working and adds that there is quite a blurred line between the two, particularly for working mums who might be able to work more hours if they had greater flexibility.

He looks at the potential impact of automation on jobs and working hours, weighing the upbeat and doom-laded scenarios of various reports. He says the conditions in which automation is introduced are important. Automation in conditions of austerity and low investment could be bad news for low-skilled, professional and routine jobs, he says.

A few examples of the shorter working week

So what are the arguments for reducing the working week? Skidelsky says the increasing number of mums in the workforce is a key one. He looks at examples in Europe where hours have been reduced, for instance, France’s 35-hour week, but says the impact has been varied. For some it has brought a more intense working week, while for others, including many parents, it has increased their work life balance. For those in unskilled professions it has increased the unpredictability of their hours, says Skidelsky; in hospitals there is a problem with a shortage of trained workers while skilled workers have often benefited from a shorter working week. Skidelsky says France’s example shows the need to consider reduced hours on a sectoral basis rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all solution.

In Germany, he says, working hours have been reduced through sectoral collective bargaining as a reward for increased productivity.

Some companies in the UK have trialled shorter working weeks. Skidelsky says those in the knowledge sector have generally been able to implement shorter hours with little impact on productivity. In contrast, those who have tried it in sectors such as hospitality have taken a financial hit from reduced opening hours. He highlights one school in London, the Forest Gate Community School, which is moving to a 4.5 day week this month to allow teachers time for professional development. Teachers’ pay and holiday remain the same as if they were doing a five-day week.

The Wellcome Trust is a well-known example of a business that has considered reducing the working week. It concluded that it could not do so in a blanket fashion as that would make some functions more stressful as workers tried to cram five days’ work into four. Skidelsky says that this is a big issue for larger organisations with multiple types of roles who might be looking to reduce hours.

The role of government

Skidelsky argues that, although reduced hours have been and can be introduced successfully in some companies, widespread change is unlikely to come through the actions of individual employers. He says the government has an important role to play. He points, for instance, to the Netherlands which has an average working week of 30 hours, mainly due to the number of women in the labour market. This is supported by legislation which grants equal rights to part-time workers, for instance, around access to training and holidays, and allows workers to request an increase or reduction in their hours which can only be turned down for specific business reasons, similar to the UK’s right to request flexible working. Skidelsky attributes the Netherlands’ success in reducing its average working week to the fact that there is less income inequality than in the UK. Many workers in the UK simply cannot afford to reduce their working hours, he says.

Skidelsky says that, while the state has a crucial role to play in promoting a reduced working week, it needs to take into account those employees or employers which have particular challenges, such as low-income earners, the self employed, small businesses and those in precarious jobs.

10-year target

He proposes that the government set a 10-year target for moving to a 35-hour week. To do this, he says, the state needs to restore full employment, invest in the public sector and use public procurement policies as leverage with the private sector.

With regard to the former, Skidelsky proposes a Job Guarantee Programme with the state being employer of last resort and offering buffer jobs in the public sector at minimum wage or above. He also advocates social partnerships between employers, employees, government and unions to replace collective bargaining over issues such as pay, hours, insecurity and automation and the abolition of the UK’s opt-out from the EU’s Working Time Directive. And he says employers need to be offered incentives to reduce their hours and to be required to forecast the hours and employment impact of automation.

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