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A Social Policy Case for a Four-Day Week

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2022

HEEJUNG CHUNG*
Affiliation:
Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Kent email: h.chung@kent.ac.uk
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Abstract

There has been an explosion of interest in the “four-day-week” movement across the globe, especially due to its potential in addressing many of the societal challenges left by the COVID-19 pandemic. Four-day-week is a movement set to shorten the working hours of full-time workers without a reduction in pay. I aim to set out the case for a national move towards a four-day-week explaining why social policy scholars should lead the debate. First, I provide evidence of the societal costs that the current long-hours work culture has on workers’ and their family’s well-being and welfare, social inequality, and social cohesion. Shorter working can help tackle these issues by giving workers right to time, shifting the balance between work and non-work activities in our lives and valuing them both. Social policy scholars need to lead this debate owing to our existing knowledge and expertise in dealing with these social issues and state-level interventions. In addition, without pressing for fundamental changes in our labour market, we cannot adequately address some of the key challenges we face as a society. The paper ends with key research questions social policy scholars should address as a part of this move.

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Introduction

In recent years, we have seen an explosion of interest in the shorter working week or the “four-day-week” across the globe – for example, in Spain, India, and New ZealandFootnote 1 . In the UK, a cross-party motion was submitted to the Parliament in June 2020 asking for an introduction of a four-day-week (UK Parliament, 2020). More recently in April of 2021, the Scottish National Party has promised a £10million fund to allow companies to pilot and explore the benefits of a four-day-weekFootnote 2 . One reason why this movement garnered so much attention is due to the potential it has in addressing many of the societal challenges left by the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes issues such as, increased levels of gender and social inequality, workers’ deteriorated mental health issues, and the need to rejuvenate the tourism and hospitality industries that have been hit the hardest due to the pandemic. Much of the debate around the four-day-week movement has been on the productivity gains it can bring. Given that a four-day-week asks employers to pay workers the same salary for shorter working hours, such evidence is crucial in ensuring that companies and the public are on board with its introduction. However, we also need to think about the larger societal changes a general reduction in working hours can bring. This is necessary to develop this movement into a national policy strategy introduced to tackle some of our biggest societal challenges around inequalities and sustainability.

Reduction of working hours directly relates to issues around workers’ well-being, social inequalities, and defining and shifting norms around the value of work and individual’s contribution to society, topics that are at the heart of social policy research. Despite being best placed to lead the discussions, there has not been enough engagement in these topics by social policy scholars. This paper sets out to convince social policy scholars to engage more with and lead the debates around policies that directly engage with changing the labour market. We need to lead the debate because without fundamental changes in our labour market and without changing the role ‘work’ has in our societies, we are unable to adequately address some of the key challenges we face collectively. We need to look beyond the more limited spheres of social policy areas and look at the structural changes necessary to proactively tackle the root cause of problems rather than react to its outcomes. Four-day-week is a good example of such interventions.

The next section defines what a four-day-week is, then explains the impact long-hours work culture has on many issues such as well-being, social inequalities, and social cohesion. This will provide the basis to show how a move towards a four-day-week can help tackle these issues by giving back workers the right to time and by changing the notions of and the value of ‘work’. The essay will also highlight some key research questions social policy scholars should address as a part of this move.

Four-day-week definitions and theories

What is a four-day-week?

The four-day-week is an idea that believes that the full-time standard working hours, currently set around 36-40 hours in most countries, should move to a four-day or a 30-32 hours a week standard without a reduction in pay workers receive (see also Pang, Reference Pang2019; Coote et al., Reference Coote, Harper and Stirling2020). It does not necessarily mean that workers must work four days, but it is more about the general idea that there should be a reduction in the number of hours workers work to be considered “full-time equivalent”. Thus, the four-day-week can be distinguished from part-time work in that the latter entails a reduction in the number of hours of work but with a proportional reduction in the pay received – e.g. four-days’ work for 80% of a full-time pay. It can also be distinguished from a condensed work week, where a full-time equivalent hour (e.g. 40 hours) is carried out in fewer number of days (e.g. four days), where although there is a reduction in the days worked, there is no reduction in the notions of what constitute full-time equivalent hours.

Why a four-day-week?

One reason why the four-day-week has gained a lot of interest across the world is due its potential for productivity gains (for example, see Stronge et al., Reference Stronge, Harper and Guizzo2019; Pang, Reference Pang2019). The reason why shorter working can result in increased productivity is because short focused hours can prove to be much more effective in finishing a job compared to long-hours work (Pencavel, Reference Pencavel2014; Künn-Nelen et al., Reference Künn-Nelen, De Grip and Fouarge2013). In fact, Parkinson’s law states that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’ (Parkinson and Osborn, Reference Parkinson and Osborn1957). There is evidence on how, for the average UK worker, the majority of the 8 hour work days is used for non-work activities – such as coffee making, news reading, talking to colleagues/partner (Vouchercloud, 2016). Long working hours also inhibit workers’ recovery time necessary to maintain their well-being, and to increase work engagement and proactive behaviours, ultimately impacting on job performance outcomes (Sonnentag, Reference Sonnentag2012). What is more, long hours of work, without ample rest, can result in negative health outcomes (Caruso et al., Reference Caruso, Bushnell, Eggerth, Heitmann, Kojola, Newman, Rosa, Sauter and Vila2006), increasing sickness, absenteeism, and turn-over intentions (i.e. leaving the job), all of which can be costly for companies. This explains why we see evidence of productivity or profit gains from shorter working hours not only in knowledge-based occupations but also in the more lower-paidFootnote 3 , manual or routine occupations (for detailed case studies see, Pang, Reference Pang2019). Although the productivity gains of a four-day-week are important to highlight, we also need to foster debates around how only through the reduction in working hours can we adequately address some of our most urgent societal problems. To do this, I will first explore the problems of the long-hours work culture.

The problems of the long-hours work culture

Performative nature of the long-hours work

Although we see a trend in the reduon of working hours in most industrialised countries, this is not the case for liberal welfare states such as the US and UK (Schor, Reference Schor2008)Footnote 4 , where long working hours is still prevalent especially among full-time working men. For example, the average working hours of a male full-time worker in the UK is one of the highest of all European countries at an average of 43.7 hours a week in 2019 (Eurostat, 2021). What is more, a large proportion of workers work very long hours, with close to 3.5 million workers/13% of total workforce working over 48 hours a week in 2016, much of it as unpaid overtime (TUC, 2017; TUC, 2021). This can be largely explained by the ideal worker culture dominating our societies, where someone who prioritises work above all else and does not have any other responsibilities outside of work is considered to be the model of a productive and committed worker (Acker, Reference Acker1990; Williams, Reference Williams1999). In such cultures, working long hours in the office are necessary to signal one’s commitment, motivation, productivity and performance (Berdahl et al., Reference Berdahl, Cooper, Glick, Livingston and Williams2018)Footnote 5 . It is considered the ultimate sign of commitment because as time is a limited resource, by committing providing a significant proportion of it to work, you effectively crowd out everything else in your life, signalling the importance work has in your life to your employer and others around you.

Scholars have criticised long hours worked as being merely performative rather than necessary (Reid, Reference Reid2011). In fact, workers who report working long hours tend to exaggerate the number of hours they work (Yanofsky, Reference Yanofsky2012). However, as many organisations consider working long hours as a sign of commitment (Mazmanian et al., Reference Mazmanian, Orlikowski and Yates2013), many workers ‘perform’ or pretend to work long hours to ensure their competitive edge in the organisation and the labour market as a whole (Reid, Reference Reid2011). Long-hours work cultures push our societies to become more work-centred (Frayne, Reference Frayne2015) by eliminating or crowding-out the value non-work activities hold. In such societies, work, not leisure, becomes the signifier of dominant social status. The assertion of being busy owing to long hours spent at work reflects one’s position in or an aspiration to high social status, and superiority over others in terms of achievement (Gershuny, Reference Gershuny2005). It is not only a source of conspicuous consumption – to show others of one’s position – but also is a basis of how individuals evaluate their self-worth (Bellezza et al., Reference Bellezza, Paharia and Keinan2017).

Long-hours impact on well-being of workers’ families

One of the most direct negative outcomes of long working hours can be found in its impact on individuals’ health and well-being. Several studies show how long working hours and overtime impacts individual’s physical and mental health outcomes (for a review, Caruso et al., Reference Caruso, Bushnell, Eggerth, Heitmann, Kojola, Newman, Rosa, Sauter and Vila2006) costing UK employers more than £10 billion annually (Health and Safety Executive, 2019). However, the negative impact of long working hours goes beyond its impact on workers and companies. Studies evidence its negative impact on workers’ relationship with their partners and children (Crouter et al., Reference Crouter, Bumpus, Head and McHale2001). For example, when fathers work long hours, children generate negative views of their father’s job and of the time spent together (Strazdins et al., Reference Strazdins, Baxter and Li2017). Long working hours of parents can be detrimental for children’s socio-emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being (Johnson et al., Reference Johnson, Li, Kendall, Strazdins and Jacoby2013; for a review, Chung, Reference Chung2021) because this prohibits parents from spending time with children.

Long-hours work culture and inequalities

Another problem with the long-hours work culture is that it is largely exclusionary towards those who have responsibilities outside of work (Berdahl et al., Reference Berdahl, Cooper, Glick, Livingston and Williams2018). Several studies indicate long-hours work (culture) as the biggest culprit of why women are excluded from some of the most lucrative jobs, or why gender pay gaps are highest in certain occupations (Goldin, Reference Goldin2014; Cha and Weeden, Reference Cha and Weeden2014). Women bear, and are expected to bear, the brunt of housework and childcare in heterosexual coupled relationships (Dotti Sani and Treas, Reference Dotti Sani and Treas2016; Wishart et al., Reference Wishart, Dunatchik, Mayer and Dunatchik2019). Due to this, unlike men and workers without care or other obligations, many women, especially mothers, are unable to ‘perform’ long working hours. Long-hours work culture also enforces a strict division of household labour between men and women. Men’s long working hours prohibit them from taking a more active role in housework and childcare (Walthery and Chung, Reference Walthery and Chung2021) leaving women to pick up the larger bulk (Wishart et al., Reference Wishart, Dunatchik, Mayer and Dunatchik2019). This again limits women’s labour market capacity (Cha, Reference Cha2010), leaving them to work in lower-paid part-time roles with few career progression opportunities (Connolly and Gregory, Reference Connolly and Gregory2008) or make them leave the labour market altogether (Chung and Van der Horst, Reference Chung and Van der Horst2018; Vlasblom and Schippers, Reference Vlasblom and Schippers2006). This results in a vicious cycle where men’s breadwinning responsibility is emphasised in heterosexual coupled relationships leading them to work longer hours to ensure the financial security of the household. Such divergent labour market patterns impacts the unconscious biases people hold against women’s and mother’s capacity to work (Budig et al., Reference Budig, Misra and Boeckmann2012), which limits women’s, including non-mothers’, progress up to leadership positions. Women are not the only ones who are excluded from this long-hours labour market. Anyone who cannot adhere to this long-hours work culture – may it be due to informal care responsibilities or self-care (namely, those with disability or long-standing illnesses) – is also excluded. Therefore, long-hours work culture can be seen as one of the leading causes of the persistent inequality patterns observed in our labour markets.

Long-hours work and social cohesion

Long-hours work culture is also problematic in that it undermines social cohesion by promoting the stigmatisation of workers who cannot, or are thought to be unable to, work long hours (or work at all) (Chung, Reference Chung2022). Studies have shown that workers who take up family-friendly arrangements, such as flexible working arrangements, leaves, or part-time work etc., experience negative career outcomes especially in ideal worker cultures (Chung, Reference Chung2020b; Williams et al., Reference Williams, Blair-Loy and Berdahl2013; Cech and Blair-Loy, Reference Cech and Blair-Loy2014). According to the 2018 Eurobarometer, 29% of those surveyed in the UK agreed or strongly agreed that flexible working is badly perceived by colleagues. Similarly, 29% of respondents in the 2018 British Social Attitude Survey responded that they would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ experience negative impact on their career if they asked to work flexibly (Curtice et al., Reference Curtice, Clery, Perry, Phillips and Rahim2019). Workers using flexible working arrangements are stigmatised because, by using family-friendly arrangements, it signals to others (managers and colleagues) that you have other responsibilities outside of work, limiting your capacity to devote yourself (completely) to work. The irony here is that despite the fact that those who work flexibly, and workers who have better work-life balance, can be more productive and are more committed to the company (Kelliher and de Menezes, Reference Kelliher and de Menezes2019), our social norms around the ‘ideal worker’ prohibit people from accepting such evidence. The stigma against those who are unemployed or receiving benefits are also prevalent in long-hours work cultures (Baumberg et al., Reference Baumberg, Bell and Gaffney2012), where job loss is considered a direct loss of social status impacting others’ and your own perceived notion of (self-)worth (Sage, Reference Sage2019; Van Oorschot, Reference Van Oorschot2006).

In sum, working long hours in our societies, rather than being a necessary function of one’s job, has persisted largely as a performance tool to signify one’s productivity, commitment, and self-worth. It is, further, a root cause of many problems we face in society today, including issues around workers’ and their families’ well-being, labour market inequality, decline in social cohesion, and the stigmatisation of disadvantaged workers.

How four-day-week can help: some evidence of success

Regaining our right to time

Four-day-week can directly solve issues of well-being of workers by reducing one of the key culprits of work-related illnesses – that is, working long hours and overwork (Kelly and Moen, Reference Kelly and Moen2020). It improves workers’ well-being by not only allowing individuals more time to recover, but also allowing them to take part in activities outside of work such as spending more time with family and friends. Providing workers more capacity to spend time with others can also help improve the well-being of others – such as their children and other family members (Chung, Reference Chung2021). Providing workers more time can also help tackle a range of other challenges we face as a society. For example, shorter working has been shown to be useful in promoting community activities (Putnam, Reference Putnam2000), and can help promote the development of culture and healthy leisure activities that go beyond TV watching (Corneo, Reference Corneo2005). Shorter working can help reduce carbon emissions and tackle global warming and other issues relating to climate change (Knight et al., Reference Knight, Rosa and Schor2013; Kallis et al., Reference Kallis, Kalush, O’Flynn, Rossiter and Ashford2013) by removing ‘time poverty’ which prevents individuals from making ‘good’ decisions/behaviours. Thus we, as social policy scholars, need to think about providing workers the right to time (without reduction in pay or without income insecurity) to address the problems that the long hours work culture brings.

There is evidence to show how national-level policies introducing shorter working can help bring about change. For example, France introduced a move from 39 to 35-hour work week in 2000, and Portugal legislated a move from 44-to 40-hour standard in 1996. These policy changes have been shown to increase workers’ well-being and life satisfaction whilst reducing their work-family conflict (Lepinteur, Reference Lepinteur2019; Fagnani and Letablier, Reference Fagnani, Letablier, Perrons and Fagan2006). The recent Icelandic national-level four-day-week experiment has also shown similar results (Haraldsson and Kellam, Reference Haraldsson and Kellam2021), as have the results found in country cases where legal changes have been made towards overtime premiums to make long working hours more expensive – for example, in Japan and Korea (Hamermesh et al., Reference Hamermesh, Kawaguchi and Lee2017). There are also policies in many countries that enable reduction in working hours for specific groups of the population. This includes parental leave, including part-time parental leave allowing parents to reduce working hours (whilst not reducing their pay) (Koslowski et al., Reference Koslowski, Blum, Dobrotić, Kaufman and Moss2021), or partial sick leave systems. However, these existing policies have clear limitations. For example, sick leave is reactive rather than preventive, and only addresses the issues when things have gone wrong rather than tackle the root cause before problems arise. What is more, they are targeted towards certain groups of the population rather than implemented across the board. This can result in the stigmatisation and negative career consequences for workers who take these arrangements up. For example, workers are penalised for taking up leave and other types of flexible working arrangements (Williams, Reference Williams2013), and women are sometimes penalised due to assumptions that they will eventually take up these arrangements (Budig and Hodges, Reference Budig and Hodges2010). These existing policies do not do enough to bring about change necessary in addressing social inequality problems brought on by the long-hours work culture, nor does it shift societal values of what is important in life.

Reducing inequalities in the labour market

Four-day-week can help reduce the inequalities in the labour markets caused by the long-hours work culture. Firstly, this is done by encouraging job sharing, with a better redistribution of working hours between those who experience hours insecurity with those who are overworked (Coote et al., Reference Coote, Harper and Stirling2020; Stronge et al., Reference Stronge, Harper and Guizzo2019). For example, there is some evidence that the French 35-hour work week has enabled some redistribution of working hours across income groups (Estevão and Sá, Reference Estevão and Sá2008). Further, it is estimated that a move to a four-day-week in the Scottish public sector can generate between 45,000 to 59,000 new (decent) jobs (Autonomy, 2020). Pang (Reference Pang2019) provides case studies in lower-paid service sectors – fast food restaurants, social care settings – where shorter working entailed increase in the number of positions/jobs. Again, this allows for the redistribution of hours across the workforce, which can be effective in tackling issues of labour market inequalities – but only when done at a national scale. Although this can increase costs, much of it will be saved by reduced costs to the healthcare system by having a healthier workforce. What is more, much of the cost companies bear due to additional recruits can be reaped back through reduced staff absenteeism, sickness, and turnover (see Pang, Reference Pang2019; Autonomy, 2020).

Shorter working hours can enable women, and workers with other responsibilities outside of work who may be limited in the hours they can spend at work, to have better access to lucrative jobs – through the reduction in the number of hours workers are expected to spend at these jobs. In fact, scholars argue that the introduction of the 35-hour work week in France largely explains why France not only has one of the smallest gender gap in working hours, but also a high rate of dual-earning couples (Estevão and Sá, Reference Estevão and Sá2008). Shorter working also encourages workers, especially men/fathers who have a higher tendency to work long hours, to be more involved in childcare and housework, resulting in a more equitable division of domestic work. The recent Icelandic experiment has shown us that it was especially men in heterosexual relationships that took on a greater domestic responsibility, enabling a more equitable share between couples (Haraldsson and Kellam, Reference Haraldsson and Kellam2021). This can provide further support for mothers (and others) to take a larger part in the labour market by relieving them from some of the housework and care responsibilities they previously held. In sum, four-day-week enables a more equitable distribution of both paid and unpaid work across the population.

Social cohesion

At the heart of the four-day-week is a move away from using long working hours as a measure of commitment, motivation and productivity of workers and the view that working shorter hours can increase productivity and efficiency. Such changes can help dismantle the stigmatised views against workers who have previously been penalised (only) because they were unable to perform long working hours – this includes those who work part-time, flexibly, or any workers that balance work with other responsibilities outside of work (Chung, Reference Chung2022). As more people gain access to time, more workers will be able to balance work with other responsibilities outside of work, may it be family, sports and leisure, community activities, or even caring for pets (Kallis et al., Reference Kallis, Kalush, O’Flynn, Rossiter and Ashford2013; Haraldsson and Kellam, Reference Haraldsson and Kellam2021). This can remove the division between the part of the population who work (long hours) versus the part who (only) provide care/carry out unpaid work. In fact, one of the outcomes of the Icelandic four-day-week experiment was exactly this change in work culture, where workers refused long working hours, putting greater value in non-work activities. Even managers showed a greater support towards work-life balance (Haraldsson and Kellam, Reference Haraldsson and Kellam2021) where work-life balance was not seen as conflicting with performance outcomes. As we can see from this experiment, when done right, four-day-week can shift people’s view of the ‘ideal worker’ to be someone who is productive while balancing other responsibilities outside of work.

Valuing non-work activities

This leads to another important change a four-day-week can hopefully bring about, that is to move us away from the work-centred society to one where we put equal value in other spheres of life. As we spend a smaller proportion of our lives at work, people will start to put greater value on non-work activities, or activities that do not generate income, similar to what we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic (Chung et al., Reference Chung, Seo, Forbes and Birkett2020; ONS, 2020). Many feminist scholars (e.g. Fraser, Reference Fraser1994) have already argued how care-giving despite playing a critical role in society is not given the recognition it deserves purely based on the notion that it does not garner market income or contribute to the GDP. Similarly, many activities carried out by individuals that fulfil important functions in society, and help reduce social or environmental costs, are not currently valued in the same way paid employment is (Taylor-Gooby et al., Reference Taylor-Gooby, Chung and Leruth2018). However, studies show that as society moves away from the long-hours work culture, shifts can occur in the norms around the value that non-work, non-income generating activities have (Corneo, Reference Corneo2005; Kallis et al., Reference Kallis, Kalush, O’Flynn, Rossiter and Ashford2013). Such change is especially necessary when we consider how many jobs are at risk due to technological developments in artificial intelligence and automation (Autor, Reference Autor2015). In future societies, individual value must be attributed to the overall contribution to society not only limited to the market value they generate.

Four-day-week and social policy

Why four-day-week is a social policy issue

There are several reasons why I believe social policy scholars should lead the debate on the need for and how to introduce the four-day-week policy. One main reason is due to the need for a state-level intervention and what that entails legislatively. At the moment, four-day-week policies are largely introduced at the company level, mainly for productivity enhancing and worker recruitment/retention purposes. However, lower-pay sectors or smaller companies may not feel a need to, may find it difficult, or may not have the capacity to introduce this policy. Relying on company-led approaches may result in more segmentation – as we’ve seen in regards to family policy implementations (Chung, Reference Chung, Nieuwenhuis and Van Lancker2020a). State intervention can provide a nudge for companies to value workers’ time, and think about what a more efficient use of it is. We have seen some success of such an approach in France, Portugal, and more recently in Korea by imposing restrictions on working hours (Hijzen and Thewissen, Reference Hijzen and Thewissen2020). Law restricting the maximum numbers of working hours, as well as increasing overtime premiums (e.g. by setting overtime premiums of hours worked beyond the four-day/32 hour-week), can be useful in accelerating changes in organisations and the labour market as a whole.

A national move to a four-day-week also needs a review of other existing laws and policies to facilitate its intended outcomes. This includes a review of the minimum and living wage to ensure that shorter working does not lead to further income insecurity – as was the case in Korea when introducing its 52-hour limit policy. We will also need to review parental leaves and other family policies to see if existing institutions enforce or maintain traditional gender roles. Without policy-led changes in the notion of whose responsibility it is to care, the extra time gained by workers may further increase the unequal division of labour between men and women, as was the case in France (Pailhé et al., Reference Pailhé, Solaz and Souletie2019). Similar reviews will be needed for other policy areas – such as unemployment benefits, pensions etc – to ensure that the change in working hours does not lead to potential negative outcomes for certain groups of the population. The goal of this paper is not to describe in detail all policy changes necessary. Rather, it is to highlight the fact that given such need for a potential overhaul and recalibration of a number of different welfare state policies, social policy scholars need to be at the centre of these debates.

Secondly, social policy scholars already deal with the key issues around the social costs of long-hours work(culture) and concurrently the societal benefits of shorter working – namely, on well-being, welfare, social inequalities, and social cohesion. Thus, we are best placed to provide critical evidence needed in setting a national agenda towards a four-day-week. For example, the UK suffers from a shortage of nurses and other health and social care professionals (Buchan et al., Reference Buchan, Charlesworth, Gershlick and Seccombe2019) due to issues around workload, stress, and high-levels of workforce turnover. Shorter working hours can potentially help enhance retention and return of nurses who have left, significantly improving the services provided by the NHS, its financial stability, and will enhance the well-being levels of individuals and society as a whole. Social policy scholars already engage in and have the expertise to bring together and connect complex range of evidence necessary to provide these links identifying the societal costs and benefits of a four-day-week policy intervention. Thirdly, the four-day-week movement should be developed as a part of our work in enhancing human rights – in this case, enhancing individuals’ (and their families’) right to time for rest, leisure, care, and other types of activities that provide social value. We have the experience and expertise to ensure that those in more disadvantaged positions are not left behind when such rights are introduced.

Remaining questions and agenda for future research

Several questions remain to be answered. More research around the impact of long-hours work (culture) is needed. For example, in my own research I find that long-hours work culture increases the stigmatisation of flexible workers, which explains why flexible working can lead to longer working hours and further exploitation of workers (Chung, Reference Chung2022; Lott and Chung, Reference Lott and Chung2016). We need to investigate how long-hours work culture influences a range of social problems/challenges – for example, the stigmatisation of benefit recipients, the unemployed (e.g. Van Oorschot, Reference Van Oorschot2006; Sage, Reference Sage2019), welfare attitudes, ideas around redistribution (e.g. Mijs, Reference Mijs2021), and social cohesion. Similarly, we need to examine how long-hours work (culture) limits the positive outcomes of existing social policies. For example, long-hours work cultures can limit the positive impact flexible working can have on workers’ work-life balance (Chung, Reference Chung2022) or limit the positive impact generous family policies can have on gender equality and work-life balance (Lee et al., Reference Lee, Duvander and Zarit2016). Related to this, there is still a lack of evidence of what kinds of societal change we can expect from a large-scale shift to a four-day-week, again on workers’ and their family and community’s welfare, on well-being, on patterns of social inequality, social cohesion, and sustainability. Social Policy scholars should take a leading role in examining these questions given our interest in social justice, our understandings around the cost of social problems, and our existing expertise in providing policy solutions for key social challenges. What is more, when discussing the potential solutions to these problems, we should not shy away from arguing for a complete restructuring or rehaul of our labour market structures and norms.

Concluding words

There are several reasons as to why now is the time to think about the introduction of the four-day-week. The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to high levels of mental health issues across the population (Banks and Xu, Reference Banks and Xu2020), and has amplified inequality patterns across gender and class (ONS, 2021). Four-day-week can help tackle these issues. Shorter working hours are also necessary to rebuild our economy, in addressing the productivity decline, and help rejuvenate tourism, hospitality, and the creative sectors that have been hit the hardest during the pandemic. The pressing need to have policies that address the environmental crisis and the political polarisation is another reason why a move to shorter working hours is urgent (see Coote et al., Reference Coote, Harper and Stirling2020).

What is more, there are indications that we may move further towards a long-hours work culture in the future if things are left unchecked. The rise in home-working and the blurring of boundaries that comes with it can result in the encroachment of work to family spheres, longer working hours (Lott and Chung, Reference Lott and Chung2016), and the traditionalization of gender roles (Chung et al., Reference Chung, Birkett, Forbes and Seo2021). What is more, the potential rise in job and income insecurity in the next few years before the economy fully recovers may result in workers needing to work longer to ensure their job and employment security. More specifically for the UK, due to Brexit, there is a threat of scrapping the EU Working Time Regulation that limits the maximum working hours of workers and protects their right to rest and holidays. Rather than reacting to problems that arise from these changes, a national move to a four-day-week may enable us to be proactive in tackling these challenges head-on. There is already great support for a move to a four-day-week, with surveys indicating that 2/3rds of both workers and businesses in the UK support it (Smith, Reference Smith2019; Ibbetson, Reference Ibbetson2019). The question is whether there is a political will.

The Beveridge report was based on the ideas of state led full-employment. Full-employment was not only the source of income security, but also as a source of self-fulfilment, providing individuals opportunities to contribute back to society. As we build back from the crisis of the pandemic, we may need a new Beveridge report outlining the need to provide good and decent work (Heins and Chung, Reference Heins and Chung2021). However, to respond to the demands of workers (and businesses) today, we need to ensure that workers’ (and their families’) right to time is also valued in this new report. The social costs of not doing so have already proven to be too high. The crisis can provide us with an opportunity to build back better, and maybe it is high time we do so.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the editors of the Journal of Social Policy for inviting me to submit to this special issue, giving me the opportunity to write this. I would further like to thank Dr. Trude Sundberg and the anonymous reviewer for providing me with feedback on the earlier version of this paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare none.

Footnotes

2 for more information see: https://www.snp.org/manifesto/

3 Although some may use lower-skilled jobs, I do not believe these jobs are necessarily low-skilled but more low-paid based on the assumption that may be incorrect.

4 See OECD data base: https://data.oecd.org/emp/hours-worked.htm for more

5 The CEO of Goldman Sacks, a financial company, responded to a group of junior associates asking to ‘only 80 hours a week’ rather than 100, by saying “If we all go an extra mile for our client, even when we feel that we’re reaching our limit, it can really make a difference in our performance”, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/mar/22/goldman-sachs-boss-responds-to-leaked-report-into-inhumane-working-hours. Similarly the CEO of Tesla, Space-X Elon Musk has been known to work 100 or more hours a week, and has said “Nobody ever changed the world on 40-hours a week” https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-nobody-changed-world-40-hours-a-week-not-true-2018-11?r=US&IR=T. The CEO of a Chinese retail company Alibaba is known to work a 9-9-6 schedule – namely, working 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/15/business/jack-ma-996-china/index.html

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