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Why a shorter working week would make us happier, and healthier

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As bank holiday season looms, how do you feel about the accompanying four-day working weeks? Stressed at losing a day, excited at gaining a day or a mix of the two?

New research analysing the work habits and cognitive abilities of 6,500 people in Australia indicates that those aged over 40 and working a three-day week outperform those working longer hours.

Through a series of tests, it emerged that cognitive functioning improved as work hours increased – but only up until 25 hours a week. After that, as hours went up, performance went down, to the point where those working 55 hours a week performed worse than those taking part in the study who were unemployed or retired.

While the data here was a certain age group, the idea of shorter working weeks leading to enhanced productivity and well-being in employees of any age is not new, and a 2014 YouGov poll saw the majority of Brits supporting the idea of introducing it.

Whether it entails lopping a day off the work week and thus off the salary, working the same hours in fewer days or having flexible, self-managed holidays, what's to recommend a three- or four-day week?

busy woman shorter work week

How many of your days feel like this?

It's hardly rocket science figuring out that contented employees work out well for employers: we perform better when happier.

And for many, being happier means a good work-life balance. It's a phrase that's almost lost meaning thanks to the plethora of interviews with glossy celebrity parents explaining how they manage to work and have kids, but it encompasses more than child-rearing – it's about everything in our lives that isn't work-related. It's our family relationships of course, but also friends, pastimes, downtime.

A 2014 study found the average 30-something British woman gets just 17 minutes a day of ‘me time’, but lacking a non-work life can impact our mental health. The UK government's work and employment relations survey (WERS) published findings in 2013 that revealed people working fewer than 30 hours a week were significantly less likely to describe themselves as feeling tense, worried or uneasy by work than those working more than 48 hours.

Longer hours are known to have an impact on employee well-being. In 2014, a top doctor called for a four-day week to combat stress and to adjust the “maldistribution of work” – fewer hours for the overworked meaning more hours for the unemployed.

Professor John Ashton CBE, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, told The Guardian: “When you look at the way we lead our lives, the stress that people are under, the pressure on time and sickness absence, [work-related] mental health is clearly a major issue.

“We should be moving towards a four-day week because the problem we have in the world of work is you've got a proportion of the population who are working too hard and a proportion that haven't got jobs […] The lunch-hour has gone; people just have a sandwich at their desk and carry on working.

“We need a four-day week so that people can enjoy their lives, have more time with their families, and maybe reduce high blood pressure because people might start exercising on that extra day.”

Physical health

On that note, it's undeniable that physical health can be affected by mental health: stress makes itself known physically.

woman sleep stress work office short work day week

If this is happening, you might need to reconsider your hours...

Previous research has found that long work hours increase the risk of serious health problems: one 2015 study revealed the longer the working week, the higher the risk of stroke. Those working more than 40 hours a week had a 10% increased risk, while more than 49 hours pushed it up to 27%.

Job shares and part-time hours have been the norm in workplaces in the Netherlands since the early nineties, and there are various examples worldwide.

In 2008, the US state of Utah implemented a four-day week for 18,000 of the 25,000 state employees, moving them from five eight-hour days to four 10-hour days. Workplaces reported lower levels of absenteeism, boosted productivity and improved workforce satisfaction.

As this report points out, moving a significant number of people outside of rush hour had an impact on commuting and congestion, providing an environmental benefit as well as improving well-being for those no longer having to elbow their way into work every morning or pay peak fares.

Wider benefits

Indeed, the benefits beyond the individual could be significant. A 2010 report by think tank New Economics Foundation recommended a 21-hour working week, saying: “It could help to tackle a range of urgent and closely related problems: overwork, unemployment, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably […]

“A much shorter working week would change the tempo of our lives, reshape habits and conventions, and profoundly alter the dominant cultures of western society.” In other words, as well as evening out gender disparity and reducing unemployment, it could help break the habit of earning money to buy things we don't need therefore making our planet healthier overall.

While that's a long way off, some companies are making changes and seeing a benefit to business as well as employee satisfaction.

A fresh approach to the workplace doesn't necessarily mean fewer days, but flexitime, summer hours and self-managed holidays are all a little shift away from the 9-5 (or, more likely, 9-7) we're used to. Jenny Biggam, co-founder of media agency the7stars, previously spoke to Stylist about the upsides she'd seen after allowing employees to take control of their own hours (not least having her company named one of the best small businesses to work for in the UK).

Biggam found that her company actually saved money without the paper trails and admin hours holiday leave and time sheets usually create. “Out went job titles, holiday forms, clocking on and off, time sheets, fixed working hours, fixed working spaces, micromanagement. In came putting people before processes […]

“This included trusting staff to know how much time they should spend at their desks.”

woman relaxing park bench shorter four day work week health benefits

Time away from work is important

Other bosses embracing different methods also sing their praises, such as Alisa Murphy of cleantech comms agency Life Size Media, who told Stylist last year she didn't understand why businesses placed so much emphasis on clocking in and out: “I’m not paying people to show up and be at their desk for eight hours a day, I’m paying them to deliver excellent work. Does it really matter when or where they produce that work?

“It’s an incredible relief not to waste energy on pointless things, like checking people don’t take too long for lunch. It’s really helped us all to focus on results and to find the energy and commitment to deliver day in and day out, because we’re able to find better balance with our lives outside work.”

Such thinking is still unusual in the UK, but with big names like Netflix, Virgin and Google promoting flexibility by implementing various creative policies in their workplaces, a rejig of our working week might not be too far off.

Images: iStock

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