Since COVID-19 struck and the UK went into lockdown, many have been discussing the ‘new normal’ and various campaign groups in Wales have begun pushing for a raft of new policies to be implemented, such as Universal Basic Income and the four-day working week writes Edward Sumner.
Those on the left have been pushing for a four-day week for many a year now. In the past few months we have seen a cross-party group using the Covid-19 crisis to re-introduce the idea. The former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, the SNP MP Mhairi Black and the Green MP Caroline Lucas have written a letter to Rishi Sunak demanding that a commission be set up to examine the issue. With working timetables so mixed up due to the virus, these people argue, this is the right time to make a change that will ‘reduce stress and overwork, boost mental health and wellbeing, and increase productivity’.
We at the Centre for Welsh Studies took a small look at this idea recently in our new report and considered its merits and whether it would be beneficial for the workers of Wales. We recognised the hunger for societal and economic change has risen the political agenda and topics previously considered impossible or unlikely are now being looked at in a more sympathetic manner. The new experience of working from home for many has left them pondering if a new balance could be struck without affecting productivity and growth. The question many are asking, is this proposal workable and if so, how should it be implemented?
There are potential benefits that can come with a 4-day week, such as increased productivity and engagement, reduced carbon footprint, financial gains, employee wellbeing and retention of staff. Whether it be saving money thanks to less travel and thus a reduced carbon footprint or a positive benefit to the mental well being of an employee, there are clear tangible benefits of creating a more flexible environment to work in. In 2017, 18 57% of all sick days were due to work related stress, anxiety or depression and 44% of these were caused by workload pressure alone. It’s clear there is an issue here and reducing the perceived workload will help to improve the health and well-being of employees.
With the Government now promoting a new health agenda, a more flexible work balance could lead to us becoming a healthier nation, if a person has more free time then it’s much more likely they will use that time to pick up a new sport or even just go for a walk, thus helping Wales tackle the obesity crisis. Businesses will benefit from having a fitter, more energetic staff and there is evidence to suggest that productivity increases when a person is fitter, this question of more flexibility is far from a black and white issue.
However, there is a clear problem with this idea when those on the left suggest it, as they suggest it be mandated by the Government, this could mean the exact opposite effect of what they wanted. It would put in place a rigid new structure that could cause chaos and a more uneven work/life balance. Time and time again we have seen the government interfere only to make life worse for the worker under the guise of improving lives, we must take a sensible approach to this as blanket uniformity will never work nor will government imposing strict new laws. The main reason for this change is to give the worker more freedom and to create a dynamic marketplace for jobs in Wales, let’s not make Wales a less attractive place to work, lets make it the best place to work in the UK. It’s not just the job market and productivity that may be hurt by this, for employees with babies and young children, a four-day workweek may become a huge problem for those who depend on childcare. Childcare centres are usually open from 8am to 6pm, a 10-hour workday would usually end after most places have closed for the day. Thus hammering home why we should stay away from having this mandated by the Government.
We believe there are benefits to be had from increasing flexibility at work, and this change to a four-day working week could potentially benefit millions of workers but we want to see the worker have more flexibility without forcing businesses to economically damage themselves or must shorten operating hours, thus hurting the consumer. We all want to see a more dynamic and flexible economy and workers want this too, but we cannot sacrifice productivity, jobs and personal lives to satisfy a small few who would see this brought in via a blanket law. Let’s encourage business to adapt after COVID-19 but not in a way that would hurt an already damaged economy and jobs market. We need flexibility, not rigid uniformity.
Edward Sumner is the Chief Operating Officer for the Centre for Welsh Studies