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A 4-day work week might be edging closer — here’s why

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With Spain set to test a four-day work week in response to the coronavirus pandemic, experts have said it could signify a more permanent shift in attitudes on our work-life balance.  

The Spanish government agreed last week to pilot a 32-hour work week over three years, without cutting workers’ pay, putting 50 million euros ($60 million) toward the cost of the project for those companies that request to take part. 

Inigo Errejon, who leads the small Spanish leftwing party Mas Pais that spearheaded the plan, tweeted at the time that the funding should “serve to reorient the economy towards improving health, caring for the environment and increasing productivity,” according to a translation. 

Joe Ryle, who is part of the British-based 4-Day Week Campaign, told CNBC via telephone that the concept has “grown in both popularity and momentum since Covid hit.”

He said the sudden shift to the vast majority of people working from home has “opened people’s eyes to the fact that change can happen, and that it can happen very quickly, when we want it to.”

In spending more time at home, Ryle said workers have also had more time to “reimagine what is important in their lives.” 

The 4-Day Week Campaign wrote an open letter to a number of world leaders in November, including Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, encouraging them to consider implementing a shorter work week as a response to the pandemic. The letter highlighted how shorter working hours have been used in times of economic crisis to more evenly share out workloads between the unemployed and “overemployed” —  people working more hours than they would prefer. 

Japan and ‘karoshi’

Japan could also be considering the switch to a four-day work week, after a proposal was reportedly put forward in its Parliament last week by Kuniko Inoguchi, a member of its ruling Liberal Democratic Party. However, the Japanese proposal could reportedly see a loss in pay for the extra day off.

And while, in the case of Japan, it is unclear as to whether the proposal was motivated by the pandemic, the country has long had a reputation for condoning a culture of working longer hours. Japan even has a name for “death by overwork”: “karoshi.”

Although the situation might not be quite as severe as that in some other countries, that sense of feeling overworked or burned out has definitely become more acute amid the pandemic. Numerous pieces of research have found that people around the world have been working longer hours while at home over the past year.

A report that the 4-Day Week Campaign produced with think tanks Autonomy and Compass, published in October, cited research from the Mental Health Foundation that said Britons working from home during the pandemic were putting in an extra 28 hours of overtime on average a month.

Indeed, Ryle pointed out that the U.K. had been found to have among the longest working hours in Europe.

“We have one of the least productive economies and we have the least bank (public) holidays,” said Ryle, who previously worked for the U.K.’s leading opposition Labour party, when it proposed a four-day week as one of its potential policies in Britain’s last election.

‘Rethink how we work’

While a shorter work week doesn’t appear to be on the current British government’s agenda, some Scottish lawmakers are backing the idea if the country becomes independent from the U.K.

Lee Robb, a member of Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party, argued the merits of it at the party’s conference in November in light of Covid. “The coronavirus pandemic has upended the way we live our lives but so too has it given us the opportunity to reset and rethink how we work,” he said.  

Looking at Scotland’s public sector alone, U.K. think tank Autonomy published data in December that showed a four-day week would cost between £1.4 billion ($1.9 billion) and £2 billion a year but could create between 45,000 and 59,000 new jobs in the sector.

Later that month, Autonomy published a wider U.K. study using the profitability statistics of over 50,000 U.K. firms. It found that, under its worst-case scenario, most British businesses could afford a four-day week with no loss in pay, and once the initial phase of the coronavirus crisis had passed.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also encouraged employers who were able to consider giving staff a shorter work week to do so, as one way to encourage and bring back the country’s tourism sector post-pandemic.

Meanwhile, Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin has previously advocated for a four-day work week consisting of six-hour days.

‘Crisis of unemployment’

In addition to the potential affordability of a shorter work week, it has also been found to make workers more productive. A well-publicized example is that of Microsoft Japan, which closed its offices to its 2,300 members of staff every Friday for a month and saw productivity jump 40%, in terms of sales per employee.

Kate Soper, professor emerita of philosophy at the London Metropolitan University, told CNBC via telephone that she believed discussion of shorter work weeks would likely continue to gain traction as more work becomes automated by technology.

She said that we are facing “crisis of unemployment” due to greater use of automated systems in the workplace, but argued that instead of “lamenting the loss of work, we should see it as an opportunity to actually rethink our whole politics on prosperity” and to “move from an essentially work-rooted understanding of identity.”

In her recent book “Post-growth living: For an alternative hedonism,” Soper cited a prediction by renowned economist John Maynard Keynes in an essay from the 1930s, that by 2030 people could be working as little as 15 hours a week.

Soper also argued for the “immense environmental benefit” of working less. 

Research published in December by the U.K.’s University of East Anglia, the University of Exeter and the Global Carbon Project, found worldwide public health restrictions had driven a record drop in global carbon emissions in 2020. 

Ryle echoed the point made by Mas Pais’s Errejon, that a shorter work week is all-round “good for the economy, good for workers and good for the environment.”

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