3 Oct 2014 05:15pm

Debate: The three-day working week

Is the three-day working week a realistic model?



Anna Coote is head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation (NEF)



Kenneth Matos is senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute, New York



YES Anna Coote

Whose “reality” are we talking about? If I were a parent of young children, or caring for elderly relatives, a three-day week could seem perfectly realistic. Depending on my earning capacity, it could be realistic in terms of my time budget, but not in terms of my financial budget. But is a mix of low pay and long hours more realistic than decent wages and a shorter working week?

Employees whose lives are cut off from their families are unlikely to have the same rounded experience and multiple skills as those with a better work-life balance. They are more likely to suffer from stress and anxiety, to get sick and take time off. So the extra effort of managing more staff could be substantially offset by the quality of their output.

The New Economics Foundation argues for a gradual transition. We suggest a four-day week as a starting point for change. Paid and unpaid time should be more evenly distributed between women and men and between the over-worked and unemployed. Our research shows this would bring benefits for society, the environment and economy. Today’s radicalism is tomorrow’s realism.


NO Kenneth Matos

The idea of a three-day working week, as presented by Carlos Slim, is an interesting thought experiment, but not a realistic model for an overall restructuring of work. Calling it a three-day working week is misleading. His proposition is closer to a four-day working week (32 hours) compressed into three calendar days at 11 hours a day.

Modern societies require armies of people constantly working in well co-ordinated shifts to maintain infrastructure, operations, and well-being. Work in the medical, law enforcement, and utilities sectors is 24/7, while hospitality and retail jobs need to be active when others are not working. Also, if every adult works 11 hours a day, what does a school day look like? Do governments or employers need to provide for childcare during evening work hours?

Perhaps, most importantly, not all work can or should be compressed into three calendar day timeframes. Being able to buy toilet paper or get a car repaired only three days a week would cause major disruptions in many organisations and lives.

Additionally, many work tasks are physically or mentally exhausting; compressing the labour into fewer, longer periods of activity will cause a decline in performance and workplace safety. This is especially important for hourly employees who would have to work three 13.3-hour days to keep the same pay as in a five-day, 40-hour working week. For such employees, the effects of this proposal are both unrealistic and inhumane.

Finally, this entire premise is built on the idea that the new-found free time will result in increased innovation. Most businesses tap innovations from only a few specific kinds of employees, mainly white-collar and salaried. The vast majority of employees are not in positions where innovation is desired, let alone possible.



YES Anna Coote

I agree a three-day week is unrealistic if it means making everyone work 40-plus hours in a compressed time frame. What people care most about is having control over their time. That means being able to choose – within reasonable parameters – when to work for money and when to do all the other things that we are not paid for. Things such as bringing up children, looking after ourselves and each other and keeping the whole human show on the road.

What modern societies need most are economic systems that serve the interests of people and the planet, not the other way around. NEF argues for a 30-hour week because we want to challenge the prevailing assumption that working for money is the only valuable thing people do. The longer we work, the more we can earn and the more we can buy. We can’t go on like this because our consumption habits are wrecking the planet. Working fewer hours would help to break those habits and cut our ecological footprint.

But we must all have time to live sustainably, not just the better-off. So the shift to a shorter working week must go hand-in-hand with concerted efforts to improve workers’ hourly rates of pay.


NO Kenneth Matos

Are we talking about a model of a 40-hour working week compressed into three to four days or a model with a reduced 24- to 32-hour working week? Making working weeks shorter by compressing the same number of hours into fewer days is still going to be as, if not more, exhausting.
There is huge value in effective workplaces that recognise employees are people with lives and families outside work and workers with professional ambitions to learn and grow. There is also a great need to better distribute skills and training along with work hours and compensation throughout society. Those advocating the reduced week model must also consider how employers pay for benefits when they take on more employees, each working fewer hours.

At the Families and Work Institute we work with partners, such as the Society for Human Resource Management, to drive employers and employees towards this considered reinvention of work. We focus on mutual solutions where particular work teams set up work schedules and processes that achieve their personal and business goals. The compressed model may be successful for some work groups but trying to force this model on all employees, in all jobs, all at once without accepting that the ripples throughout pay, benefits, health, care responsibilities and other aspects of life and work is what is unrealistic.


YES Anna Coote

It's not about working more or less, it's about a mutually directed control over work


The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that by the 21st century, because of increased productivity, no one would need to work more than 15 hours a week. He was right to anticipate a dramatic rise in productivity. He failed to predict how workers’ share of productivity gains would be drastically curtailed, or how levels of consumption in richer countries would be driven up exponentially. Both factors have helped to lock us into long hours of paid work.

NEF’s new book Time On Our Side brings together experts from a range of disciplines to consider the case for a shorter working week. We argue that the best way to manage a sustainable economy is by moving to shorter hours so more people can have jobs where there is little or no growth. And that the best way to unlock inequalities between women and men is to redistribute paid work more equally between them, so men can take on their fair share of unpaid work at home.

We face an unprecedented triple crisis of widening inequalities, accelerating damage to the natural environment and an increasingly unstable economic system. A gradual shift towards a shorter working week is a way of tackling all three.


NO Kenneth Matos

It’s not about working more or less, it’s about a mutually directed control over work. So long as most of society works for instead of with their employers these problems will continue to re-emerge.

Creating sustainable economic systems requires that employees, employers and consumers actively and collaboratively manage the effects of personal and professional lives and reinvent the workplace. To achieve a better quality of life means increasing the transparency of and employee influence in business practices and encouraging respect for a broad array of personal and professional goals.

Expanding the debate from hours and wages to include the method by which they are determined will result in responsive economic systems that change in tandem with people’s needs. FWI argues for changes to process before policy because better process will constantly empower everyone to advocate for their evolving needs instead of setting up another static policy to be debated in a few years’ time.