The benefits of working less

Working just one or two days a week is best for your mental health, according to a new study. How could we incentivise shorter working weeks?

Part time working or full time working spelled out in dice


Working less is good for your mental health, according to research published this week. A study led by Professor Brendan Burchell at the University of Cambridge found that people who did shorter working weeks were happier – and the shorter the better, it seems.

Previous studies have shown the benefits of part-time working on well being, but the latest results came as a surprise. Professor Burchell, who will be speaking about his research on employment issues at the Cambridge Festival next week, said it was expected that people who worked three or four-day weeks would be the happiest, but the study found in fact that those who worked one or two days did better. People who had lost their jobs were the most likely to experience mental health problems.

Professor Burchell has been working with employers on developing part-time opportunities. He says additional benefits include more shared care if men also work shorter weeks and reducing unemployment. The latest Office for National Statistics figures show that, although payrolled employment is up for the last quarter and unemployment may have peaked for now, there are signs that new hiring is falling back again, leaving the many of those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic with a difficult route back in.

A four-day week

The study comes after the Spanish government announced it is to trial a four-day working week on full pay with a true reduction of hours. Some Spanish companies have already independently adopted a four-day working week and have reported positive outcomes in terms of increased productivity and well being. Others argue that working fewer days will make it more difficult for national economies to recover from the impact of the pandemic. The pilot, which could start in the autumn, would enable around 200 participant companies to trial the scheme at minimal risk. The Guardian reported that the costs would be covered entirely for the first year, falling to 50% for the second year and 33% for the third year.

In the UK, the Labour party commissioned a report by Lord Robert Skidelsky in 2019 which proposed that the government set a 10-year target for moving to a 35-hour week in light of social trends, including the move to greater automation in the workplace. It called on the Government to offer employers incentives to reduce their hours and for employers to be required to forecast the hours and employment impact of automation.

There are many reasons to move towards a shorter working week – with greater work life balance a central one and there are many advocates, but there are particular challenges for certain groups, as Skidelsky’s report notes. They include low-income earners, the self employed, small businesses and those in precarious jobs. He cites the Netherlands’ success in reducing its average working week and attributes that 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.

For four-day week advocates it is important therefore that the four-day week is on full pay. That might work in white collar, knowledge-based jobs, but it is likely to be more complicated in other often lower-paid jobs in sectors such as hospitality where productivity is linked to presence. Is there a way the Government could incentivise shorter working weeks in certain sectors which cannot afford a four-day week on full pay?

The new study comes at a time when we have been experimenting with just such a model – the flexible furlough scheme. Would a targeted scheme outweigh the costs of increased unemployment and all the health and other associated impacts? What is certain is that crisis breeds innovation and that there will be many studies of the multiple impacts of Covid policies – and much to learn.

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