Happier and healthier: Why we need a four-day work week

February 20, 2023
A four-day work week with no loss in pay would benefit workers' lives. Image: Cheng-hsu Chung

As wages stagnate and the cost-of-living crisis worsens, it’s time to re-evaluate the role of work in our lives and the economic system.

The rise in gig-economy and casualised work, as well as the impact of the pandemic on work patterns, means the traditional nine-to-five, five-day work week is increasingly outdated.

The Australian Institute’s November report, Theft By Any Other Name: Unsatisfactory Working Hours and Unpaid Overtime 2022 Update, revealed that more than half of all workers are unsatisfied with their working hours, wanting either more or fewer hours.

It also found that, on average, workers are performing 4.3 hours of unpaid work a week, or 224.2 hours a year for each person. This means the average worker is losing out on $8188 a year — $92 billion overall.

“This is roughly the same as the Commonwealth’s annual expenditure on health care and it is seven times the budget for unemployment assistance including JobSeeker,” the report said.

All this unpaid labour — profits — goes straight into the pockets of big business.

Theft By Any Other Name found that, as the cost of living rises, many are searching for more work. Price rises for essentials, such as petrol, fruit and vegetables, combined with stagnant wages mean “it makes sense that more workers are expressing a preference for additional paid hours”.

Further, it found that younger people, and those in casual or temporary employment, want more hours of paid work, while older workers and those in full-time positions wanted less.

The report said the coexistence of underwork and overwork is a “persistent irony” that will require “a multitude of policy responses”.

The report recommended stability in work schedules, including: advanced rosters; reducing casualisation; limits on overtime; better access to leave; and shorter working hours.

“Revitalising the historic trend towards shorter working hours would help to strengthen employment opportunities and support healthier personal lives,” Theft by Any Other Name said.

Successful trials

This is the context for a growing discussion around a four-day work week. SBS News reported last November that Unilever ANZ told its Australian employees that it would trial a four-day working week after a successful 18-month trial in New Zealand (NZ).

Importantly, Unilever ANZ’s four-day work week meant a reduction in the hours of work, without a reduction in wages.

Research has found that reducing work hours can improve productivity. SBS News reported that Unilever’s 18-month trial in NZ showed no drop in revenue growth, with work still completed “on time and to high standards”.

More importantly, workers reported a better life-work balance, felt less stress and reported feelings of “strength and vigour”.

Another experiment in Iceland, initiated after a campaign from trade unions and other organisations, found that a shorter work week meant workers were happier and healthier, with little reduction in how much work was being done.

A four-day work week would allow for more fulfilling activities, such as spending time with friends and family, learning an instrument, exercising, reading and countless other activities that spending 40+ hours at work makes difficult.

Other benefits could include redistributing available work to the underemployed and unemployed and a more even distribution of unpaid domestic work, which is still overwhelmingly left to women.

The four-day work week, with no loss in pay, could be a first step towards creating a work-life balance.

Combating inflation

Why now? Mainstream economists and politicians argue that raising wages will only worsen inflation and the cost-of-living crisis.

But this is far from reality. As the philosopher Karl Marx showed in Wages, Price and Profit, the value of commodities is not based on wages, but on the “quantity of social labour” that goes into their creation. Using the example of the power loom in the production of textiles, Marx showed that new technologies make commodity production more efficient and decrease their value.

“When, in England, the power loom came to compete with the hand-loom, only one-half the former time of labour was wanted to convert a given amount of yarn into a yard of cotton or cloth,” Marx wrote. “The greater the productive powers of labour, the less labour is bestowed upon a given amount of produce; hence the smaller value of the produce.”

In simple terms, the easier it is to make a product, the less valuable it is. Competition drives capitalists to invest in new technologies to make their production more efficient to outdo their competitors. However, making production easier leads to a lower real value for the product.

The capitalists don’t want to pass on the benefits of higher productivity to workers in the form of a shorter working week, so that they can capture the benefit as profit and offset the fall in value of their products that eventually comes with higher productivity.

While this is a major contradiction for the capitalists, for the vast majority of workers striving to get by, it is an opportunity.

Advances in technology and efficient systems mean we are now capable of producing, socially, more than enough food, clothing and other necessities for human and ecological survival.

Automation in some industries, such as in manufacturing, means less human labour is required to produce goods. So why do we still need to work so much? If we can produce enough for everyone, why are some people still going hungry? Why is homelessness and poverty such a major issue in rich countries?

It is because the benefit of the advances in labour productivity are not going to workers; for the most part, they are captured as profits by the super rich.

Much like winning the eight-hour day and the weekend, winning the four-day work week will require independent workers' organisation to demand the reform. Unions will need to be centrally involved, combined with grassroots campaigners on the streets.

While the research around greater productivity may sway some employers, the majority won’t make such significant changes unless they are forced to by organised workers.

A union-led campaign for a four-day work week could help reinvigorate the union movement by making it more relevant to the vast majority of workers who, so far, haven’t joined.

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