Friday 15 November 2019 4:17 am

Fancy a four-day work week? Look to the private sector, not misguided politicians

Kate Andrews is associate director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Labour’s promise of a four-day work week was put through the wringer this week, when questions surfaced over whether the policy would apply to NHS employees.

The shadow health secretary said it wouldn’t, the shadow chancellor promised it would, and suddenly people were wondering how the NHS would cope if it were to lose twenty per cent of its workers’ hours overnight — especially given  yesterday’s data showing hospital performance in England at its worst level on record.

But while problems with Labour’s top-down approach to employment have been highlighted by issues with the NHS, they aren’t specific to healthcare. Even if implemented  over a decade, the four-day week would require an extraordinary uptick in productivity to protect employees from losing out on pay.

Contrary to various claims that Britons are more overworked than ever before, UK working hours are generally in line with the rest of developed countries, and the people working overtime tend to be in skilled, well-paid professions — they are not the low-paid struggling workers, as Labour tries to imply.

In fact, it would be the most vulnerable workers, the lowest paid, who would face the most uncertainty from a mandatory four-day week. A policy designed to give people a more comfortable working life could quickly result in less stable work, and more people taking up multiple jobs to pay the bills.

And even if we did see a miraculous spike in productivity, my colleague at the IEA professor Len Shackleton has outlined how a four-day week would still inevitably raise costs for business, as the nature of some jobs (like surgeons and specialist doctors, to continue the NHS theme) means that big productivity changes aren’t possible right now.

All these arguments add to up a strong case against a four-day working week being imposed by the government. They do not, however, rule out the possibility of shortened working weeks —  or the multitude of proposals for flexible workplace transformation — that are already happening organically through the private sector. 

Indeed, plenty of companies are seeing the merit in shaking up the traditional 9–5, five-day remit. 

Microsoft has been trialling a new model, and is getting positive results. Earlier this month, Microsoft Japan reported that sales had jumped by nearly 40 per cent during an experiment in which staff worked a day less a week while still on full pay. 

Likewise, the fast-food giant Shake Shack started experimenting with the concept earlier this year — and has now adopted the policy in almost a third of its locations.

Meanwhile, different forms of flexible working are on the rise, as employees are increasingly demanding better work-life balance and a more comfortable working environment.

For many companies across sectors, the nature of their employees’ work, combined with amazing advancements in technological communication and innovation, enables them to seriously consider new ways of doing business.

The lesson is not that the idea of a shortened work week is flawed in principle, but that it requires organisations to opt in if and when they’re equipped to do so. As is so often the case, government interference in the labour market can stifle the progress already underway.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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