Hey. Guess what. You shouldn’t even be at work today! Is it time for Australia to be smarter and seriously consider the four-day work week?
If the time we were forced to work at home illuminated anything, it was that the long hours we as a nation spend at work don’t guarantee our maximal productivity.
Why keep a broken system in place?
Is it time we seriously consider the four-day work week?
Henry Ford, the father of the mass-produced automobile also created the 40-hour work week. His other stroke of genius was in response to the six-day work week, motivated in part by his view that “leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles.”
It was a bold move that still defines our work lives today.
This move, however, is almost a century old.
Have we now reached the level of “peak work”? A number of nations, including ours, are seemingly buckling under the stress of infrastructure congestion, and growing emissions, all powered by an ageing workforce pushed to keep working longer. Those realities are linked in twain with mounting evidence that purports the long hours and commuting we endure has serious health and wellbeing impacts.
All of those threads are linked to the puppeteer of the five-day work week.
While Australia’s work hours have decreased slightly over the last decade, the distribution of hours has increased, with over 45 percent of people in Australia working 40 or more hours per week and 15 percent working over 50 hours per week; by sharp contrast, in the Netherlands the 40-or-over figure drops to 32 percent – in Denmark it represents just 13 percent of the total.
By that measure, Australia overworks. But then why do we not overachieve?
Well, according to a Harvard Business Review study: “There’s a large body of research that suggests that regardless of our reasons for working long hours, overworking does not help us. It doesn’t seem to result in more output. In a study of consultants, managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to…the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”
The impact of all of this work stress appears to find a particularly ugly outlet according to a GIO report: “Over 85 percent of NSW drivers surveyed have been the victims of this anger spilling out into road rage incidents.”
“…in 11 percent of these cases the drivers reported that they’ve been forced off the road, a further six percent have had their car damaged and three percent have been physically assaulted. About 86 percent attributed the high levels of road rage to traffic congestion. Another source of rage – the theft of car park spaces – was also prevalent, said 51 percent of those surveyed.”
In Europe (outside of the UK), longer holidays and a stricter work hour discipline have stuck – including Sweden’s current experimentation with a six-hour working day. France implemented and then abandoned (due to a conservative backlash) a 35-hour working week. Despite this setback, the French enjoy the shortest number of total working hours per year.
Richard Denniss, executive director of The Australia Institute, was quoted saying: “Workplace stress is now costing the economy $13 billion a year in treatment costs, reduced productivity, and absenteeism.” A four-day week could be a solution to this problem.
“It allows them to invest in their health, in their relationships. It allows them to get the jobs done they need doing around the house. But there are huge benefits for society as well.”
All of the above is background. As we are in an election cycle, the question needs to be answered.
If long working hours doesn’t produce better productivity and stresses our infrastructure, our economy and us, why are we still doing it?
And why are there few finally addressing it? Instead of just creating “jobs and growth” why aren’t we talking quality jobs and sustainable levels of growth with the aim of increased wellbeing for our kids, and healthier people, communities, and environment?
Are there other motivations that keep us from going there? According to the aforementioned HBR article, “Maybe when you combine economic incentives, authority figures, and deep-seated psychological needs, you produce a cocktail that is simply too intoxicating to overcome.”
Australia appears comfortable in clinging to the outdated view that more hours at work equals better work. We are now literally pouring billions into propping up the illusion and focusing on dealing with the problems rather than the root cause. The evidence is now overwhelming and compelling that staying the course will, in fact, prove counter-productive to the challenges we face.
And while perhaps Australia was built on the idea of hard work, it is time to change the thinking within all of us. It would not be the shirking of our responsibilities, but rather that fewer hours may be the most effective way to fulfil them. The oft-repeated mantra of less being more is life’s guide. For many of us, work is a means to an end. The four day work week will not only improve us within those hours, but also our wellbeing outside of those hours, and thusly deliver a better nation to future generations.