Should we all work less?

A new study investigates what motivates people to reduce their hours at work.

a woman sleeps at her computer with post-it notes covering her eyes


Does working less make us happier and better employees? If so, what can be done to encourage people to work shorter hours? A new study in the journal Time & Society highlights what drives us to want to work less. The study could not have anticipated where we would be now, with a global pandemic threatening many jobs and suggestions being made about how to save posts by reducing hours or sharing those needed across more people. It does, however, mention studies that show the negative impact of long hours at work on many social, economic and environmental problems.

The researchers highlight the complexity of decision-making around short-hour working, for instance, how negative experiences in the labour market play an important role in stimulating desires for alternative working patterns and alternative forms of meaning. Those negative experiences can include overwork due to work intensification and unpaid overtime and a feeling of being out of control of your time. They also looked at the positive reasons people choose to reduce their hours, for instance, an increased sense of the importance of time after personal experiences, such as illness or the death of a loved one or the desire to develop new skills unrelated to work.

The researchers say that what links these accounts is the feeling that the pressures of work are preventing people from enjoying the ‘slivers’ of free time that are left over when other responsibilities have been fulfilled. They state: “Against this backdrop, those in a position to do so are pushing back against the ‘colonising power of work’ and are framing what they gain as a result of an increase in free time in hedonistic terms that emphasise their new found freedom.”

Long hours and long-term health were a particular concern of many of those interviewed for the study. The researchers say it is important to understand what motivates people to reduce their hours in order to target policy interventions aimed at increasing a shorter working week more effectively. They say studies show people who value time over money are generally happier and that there is a link between well being and productivity, but they caution that this needs to be combined with a move towards good quality part-time jobs. They state: “Our research suggests that public engagement campaigns that emphasise the finite nature of time and the possibility of exchanging the negative experiences of employment with more activities that promote feelings of self-development and/or have a hedonistic element may see some measure of success.”

The research links to a lot of the work around the four-day week. Advocates similarly emphasise the benefits of giving employees more time to pursue interests outside the workplace and emphasise that job redesign is central since compressing five days into four would offset many of the benefits in terms of increased happiness and productivity. Others have spoken about its potential for helping revive the economy post-Covid. At a recent webinar, Andrew Barnes, founder of Perpetual Guardian and author of The 4-day week, said: “The four-day week can be part of a strategy to assist recovery and reposition the workforce.” Additionally, he commented, by freeing people up by a day a week they would not only be happier, but they would have more free time and could contribute more towards economic recovery as consumers.

With discussions around the furlough scheme cliff edge and debates around continuing it on a targeted, part-time basis – ongoing, there is an urgent need to consider the issue of quality reduced hours jobs and job shares. Keeping people in jobs that would be viable but for Covid is crucial because, once people are unemployed for some time, we know that getting a new job becomes all the more challenging.

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