Considering a four-day working week with Aidan Harper

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When we wrote The Healthy Office Revolution, we argued for working fewer hours to fight burnout and improve quality of life. But we didn’t consider the idea of reducing the number of actual days people spend in offices. To put that right, David had a chat with Aidan Harper, the driving force behind the 4 Day Week movement.

Could you tell me how 4 Day Week came about, Aidan?

I'm a researcher for the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a think tank based in London, in my day job. In 2010, they produced a paper called 21 hours, a think piece around what would happen if the UK were to move to a 21 hour economy that looked at all the benefits of working time reduction in relation to the planet, people and markets. NEF became well known for talking about this issue.

But when I started at NEF nearly three years ago, they weren't really discussing the issue as much as I’d have liked. There was also a big gap between how well the arguments were understood inside NEF compared to the wider world. I wanted to explain the mechanism that would get us to a 21 hour week, to bring the ideas together and give them a sense of direction. I created 4 Day Week to put something out into the public space that is exactly what it says on the tin, so people can say “I know exactly what this is and, if I agree, I can get on board.” So far it seems to have worked.

How is it going?

Well, so far. An increasing number of small businesses are picking up the issue, thinking that they should be moving to 4 days to increase staff loyalty and productivity and decrease staff turnover, improve wellness, provide opportunities for parents and decrease gender inequality. It’s being talked about as a response to the spread of automation at work. In the UK, pretty much every think tank from the centre to the left is discussing the issue of working time reduction.

But this is happening at a time when the reality of working life, especially as it affects Millennials and Generation Z,  is longer and longer working hours and rising stress. I was horrified to see a photo of a message carved onto cucumber in a water cooler in a WeWork space that read ‘Don’t stop when you’re tired stop when you’re done.’ There seems a massive disconnect between what you’re talking about and the reality for most of us.

I don't know anyone who would respond to that as normal. Maybe it's my bubble. You could argue that sending messages like that one that are obviously meant to be kind of hip is a pathetic attempt by bosses, business space owners and working spaces to instil this idea that overwork is somehow good but, intuitively, people rebel, I think. And the results of overwork aren’t funny. In November 2018, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed that “work related stress anxiety or depression accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill health in Great Britain”. People are being made physically sick by this culture of overwork.

How do you think the glorification of overwork has come about?

It’s symbolic of changes in the workplace over the last 30 to 40 years – the arrival of neoliberalism, which argues that hard work always results in a competitive advantage for corporations, the crackdown on unions and the way workers in general have lost their power.

You paint a pretty bleak picture.

It is. But I believe any form of progressive politics shouldn’t be a response to a bad situation. It should be positive. The 4 Day Week movement allows us to plant our flag in the ground and say “We don’t want that. We want this.”

Look at the protests against the Hungarian government’s introduction of what’s being called the “slave law”. Protesters are not just saying they don’t want a 60 hour week. They’re also calling for a 4 day week.

How do you attempt to persuade large employers?

What's good is that it's very easy to make the case from virtually every single angle. For example, on the macro level, the UK works longer hours than the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany but their economies are far more productive. In fact, it seems the longer hours worked in a country, the less productive it is – look at Mexico. So it’s clear that reducing the amount of hours worked is not going to screw up a country’s economy.

Throughout the history of capitalism, its heroes have reduced working time. Kellogg introduced a 6 hour working day and Ford a 40 hour week. They didn’t exactly lose out. More recently, look at New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian, one of the company’s oldest trust businesses. When they introduced a 4 day working week, employees performed better at their jobs and enjoyed them more. It’s obvious that reducing working hours works.

If that’s the case, where do you think resistance comes from? Do you think there’s a general fear that if you give people more time on their hands, it’s somehow dangerous?

I don't know. It depends on how abstract and philosophical you want to get. Work is a great form of control. For most of us, it’s the largest constraint on our freedom and the biggest way we internalise power dynamics. So we find it scary to think about working shorter hours. We’re also unused to thinking about how we can change our own working environment as opposed to employers doing it for or to us. A 4 day working week would mean a jump into the unknown and figuring out how to change our daily routines.

But I think that, in a few years, we’ll think of the 5 day week in the same way we now do the 6 day week, as something archaic.

Your manifesto is: “We demand a 4 day week. We demand an increase in hourly pay. We demand a stronger welfare state.” How would you describe your wider agenda?

The key thing that underpins the campaign is autonomy and personal choice. You should be able to choose what you do with your life. At the moment, the biggest thing stopping this is that we have to work to earn money to live. The wage economy is a social construct that ties us to work and all the power dynamics around which work operate – enabling us to buy food, housing and whatever.

But a tremendous amount of time and energy is wasted at work today. Look at David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs thesis. He argues that meaningless, unfulfilling jobs are actively destructive to society. And, in Britain, according to a 2015 YouGov survey, 37% of people think their jobs are meaningless. All of that wasted time and energy could be helping to meet huge societal needs at a time when volunteer work is decreasing, certainly in the US .

We should view time as a resource that’s necessary to enable people to build relationships, be more deeply involved in politics and actively help others. I believe shorter working hours would totally revitalise our cities and our communities.