UK working hours: should they be shorter?

Why do we have a five-day working week? What are the origins of the fabled nine-to-five? A trial of a six-hour working day in another European country recently found that not only were workers happier and less-tired thanks to their newly-improved work/life balance, but also more efficient - delivering higher quality across the board. Could the same approach pay dividends in the UK?

Beating the drudgery of the modern office to improve productivity

To some, the idea that more work can be done in less time will seem ridiculous. A production line doesn't slow down because a worker is tired or unhappy, afterall. But even a production line must stop when a human-induced error forces it to - and workers less-reliant on belt-driven cues to their productivity may have a much clearer idea of how savings could be made.

It's possible to concentrate extremely hard on more or less any task for 30 minutes if you know you'll get a reward at the end of it.



If you've ever worked regular hours in an office, then you're probably familiar with the frustrations that accompany it. Firstly, there's the rush-hour to deal with. Everyone starts at the same time, so roads and public transport are clogged with people reluctantly making their way to work. After the stress of the daily commute, you then settle at your workstation to face eight or more hours sat in an uncomfortable chair under fluorescent strip-lights, being either roasted alive or chilled to distraction, depending on the office milieu that day.

Perhaps you're feeling productive and end up hitting your target for the day - and who could blame you for wanting to get ahead? But the workload in a modern office rarely drops off - meaning that completion of one task only guarantees the beginning of another. Perhaps if employees saw some reward for their hard work other than monetary compensation, they would begin to feel more involved in the process, and subsequently be motivated to work harder?

A shorter working day might encourage an effect similar to the energy-boost that many people tend to feel just before lunch time, or at about 4:30pm, when the end of the working day is suddenly in sight. It's possible to concentrate extremely hard on more or less any task for 30 minutes if you know you'll get a reward at the end of it. 

The historical origins of the nine-to-five

Whilst the nine-to-five working day is becoming increasingly endangered in modern Britain thanks to the implicit expectation of overtime that has taken hold in many offices, the eight-hour day is something that originally gained favour during the Industrial Revolution. It all began when Mill-Owner Robert Owen cut working hours at his operation firstly to ten, and then to eight per day - at the same time coining the slogan "eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest". Conditions in Owen's mill were revolutionary back in the 1800s, and won him widespread acclaim as a Social Reformer.

The ever-present threat of job loss breeds a culture of presenteeism in many workplaces - where employees see the amount of time they sit at their desk as a badge of honour.


But it wasn't until the eight-hour day was adopted by famous industrialist Henry Ford, that it began to gain widespread acceptance. Following the Ford Motor Company's implementation of the five-day, 40-hour week in 1926 (as well as its more than doubling pay for the majority of workers), productivity and staff loyalty were higher than ever, and the incredulity of Ford's competitors had given way to envy, as the best staff in the business flocked to Detroit.

In the 1930s, eminent thinkers such as the economist John Maynard Keynes, and philosopher Bertrand Russell, supposed that technological advancement would mean that human effort in labour could soon be minimised - ushering in a utopian new age for society. Both Keynes and Russell wrote on this subject during the Great Depression - and Keynes mentions the problem of 'technological unemployment', where new technology means that there is simply not enough work to be divided up around the existing workforce in the generally-accepted manner.

With the current status quo, an outside observer might conclude that we are in fact moving backwards rather than forwards. After all, many people in supposedly enviable jobs work longer hours than the employees of Owen's mill did back in the 1800s. Is there a logic to all of this?

Why do we still work from nine until five?

Since those early days of industrial capitalism, massive advances have been made in labour-saving technology. Computers have ousted typewriters from our desks, robots have all but replaced workers on many factory floors, and the internet makes most forms of communication instantaneous. On top of this, populations have exploded - meaning that the labour pool is larger than ever. Yet the nine-to-five prevails, and unemployment abounds.

Experiments suggest that by dispensing with the need for targets in order to cut working hours, and instead just ... cutting them, employers often find that their operations become better, more enjoyable places to work.



Worse than this, the ever-present threat of job loss breeds a culture of presenteeism in many workplaces - where employees see the amount of time they sit at their desk as a badge of honour. A recent article by Forbes questions the efficacy of this - asking who can truly concentrate for eight hours anyway. The alternative presented is the ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) approach - where employees leave as soon as their targets are met. In this model, employees are said to be unlikely to waste time on unproductive tasks - preferring instead to go home and relax or spend time with their families.

Whilst it is important that ROWE is implemented alongside close-measures of quality (to ensure that employees do not simply complete their work as quickly as humanly possible and skip off home), it represents a powerful tool in the employer's motivational arsenal. Who would want to lose such flexible working hours, afterall?

Are shorter working hours gaining momentum in Sweden?

Experiments conducted in Sweden suggest that by dispensing with the need for targets in order to cut working hours (as with ROWE), and instead just ... cutting them, employers often find that their operations become better, more enjoyable places to work. Svartedalens (a Gothenburg care home), has been the latest organisation to adopt this approach - cutting its staff's hours from eight to six, for the same wage.

Whilst everyone is said to have their price, some things can't be bought - and time is one of them.



Clearly, in a 24-hour working environment like a care home, this necessitates more staff - and at Svartedalens an extra 14 people were drafted in in order to cover the shortfall. One thing that is reduced, however, seems to be staff turnover. 

Toyota service centres in Gothenburg have operated on a six-hour working day for more than ten years now, and report a low turnover of staff, coupled with an easier recruitment process when new workers are needed. Martin Banck, Managing Director, also reports that profits have risen 25% since the scheme was introduced. 

But Britain is a very specific context, we hear you cry - an island nation with its own culture and work ethic!



The six-hour initiative is now spreading across Sweden - with more companies getting on the bandwagon. When describing his firm's employees, Linus Feldt, CEO of Filimundus - a Stockholm-based software house which recently implemented a six-hour working day stated in a recent interview that: 

"They were happy leaving the office and happy coming back the next day. They didn't feel drained or fatigued. That has also helped the work groups to work better together now, when we see less conflicts and arguments. People are happier."

This seems to make sense. Surely when we are having to write articles like 'How to Avoid Office Burnout' and 'How to Stop Yourself Becoming a 9 to 5 Zombie', it might follow that something is amiss in the British workplace? 

Feldt also states that Filimundus has not experienced any downsides to the arrangement so far. For some companies then, it appears that shorter working hours can breed a positive and convivial dynamic - even increasing the quality of work carried out. 

Whilst Swedish news-sources are keen to point out that Sweden on the whole is a long way from a six-hour working day, it appears that steps are being made in this direction. Perhaps one day a 'critical-mass' will be reached, and a six-hour day will become the norm in Sweden. Until then, it remains the task of these brave pioneers to pave the way for a better work/life balance for all.

The impact of shorter working hours on recruitment and retention

It's certainly easy to see why recruitment might be made easier if working hours are shorter. Say that you are offered two jobs - one of which demands a 40-hour week and the other, 30 hours. If all other things were equal, then most of us know which one we would select! In fact, recent research showed that working hours are the most important consideration for 57% of people when applying for a job. It makes sense that if employees have the time to satisfy themselves through their personal relationships and pursuits, that they might become happier and more productive in their work lives.
 

It's important to point out that British productivity is nothing to write home about. In fact, it's been called a national disgrace.



Then there's the matter of retention. With each new hire costing British businesses somewhere in the region of £25-30k, it's clear that you don't want to replace staff unless you absolutely have to. Given that working hours are important to employees, and most of your competitors probably operate on a standard 40-hour week, cutting them down could make your employees extremely reluctant to leave - bolstering staff retention. Whilst everyone is said to have their price, some things can't be bought - and time is one of them.

If people don't want to leave your organisation, they won't want to be told to, either. Because employees will see increased value in their job, they will also be more motivated to keep it. 

The British context: could shorter working hours pay off in the UK?

So, despite the counterintuitive nature of the situation, it appears that employers may, in certain situations, have much to gain from cutting working hours. But Britain is a very specific context, we hear you cry - an island nation with its own culture and work ethic! 

With the charity Mind stating that one in six people in employment are experiencing mental health problems like anxiety, depression and stress, it seems logical that employers would want to do everything in their power to circumvent this.



Nobody could argue that this is not the case, but it's important to point out that British productivity is nothing to write home about. In fact, it's been called "a national disgrace". Clearly, something should be done if the country is to remain competitive on an international scale. This has led to discussion in some quarters that British employees should work as hard as their counterparts in the US or China - both of which are noted for having a longer average (actual) working day than the UK.

But what if there is another way? The reason we strive for a strong economy is surely to improve the quality of life we enjoy - so rather than face the hardship of ever-longer working hours, could it be that Britain should embrace a more progressive approach? If gently shortening the working day where possible could help people to regain their motivation and increase productivity, then surely this option should be at least explored?

By staggering people's working hours beyond the standard 9-5, much of the problem of rush hour could be alleviated.



With the charity Mind stating that one in six people in employment are experiencing mental health problems like anxiety, depression and stress, it seems logical that employers would want to do everything in their power to circumvent this. To illustrate the scale of the problem, simply count the number of people in your office and divide by six. Given the stigma attached to mental health issues, many choose not to tell their co-workers - if they are even aware of what's going on themselves. It's all a little bit worrying, isn't it?

Allowing employees more time to define the meaning of their own lives through the joys of friends, family, and hobbies other than collapsing onto the couch at the end of the day, would be a great way to alleviate many of these problems. Even at the lower-end of the pay-scale, many people in Britain today have little real 'life' outside of the workplace.

Further benefits of a shorter working day

On top of the direct benefits of a shorter day in the workplace itself, there are also benefits which would become apparent to the country as a whole. Firstly in transport - because by staggering people's working hours beyond the standard 9-5, much of the problem of rush hour could be alleviated. This would have the added bonus that people would be less tired at the beginning and end of the day - which would have road safety implications due to increased levels of concentration amongst drivers. So shorter working hours could even save lives! 

A shorter working day would also have green benefits - as traffic jams would be fewer, meaning that drivers would save on fuel.  

In the longer term, allowing parents and guardians to spend more time with their dependents could even begin to address some of Britain's skills-shortages (such as Stem) - because further time would be made available for education and assistance with schoolwork in the home. It is widely accepted that children who grow up with a favourable socioeconomic background tend to perform better in school - and parental nurture is believed to be one key component of this success.

With more time available for their personal interests, people should also find that they are more able to become involved in their local community - taking up volunteer opportunities and meeting new people. 

How could shorter working hours actually be implemented in the UK?

Given that there hasn't been a widespread shortening of working hours in the UK for around 100 years, it seems apparent that this isn't something which is going to just appear overnight. In fact, working hours have been slowly creeping upwards, as more and more overtime (whether paid or unpaid) is expected of British employees.

As we've seen from the historical context, in order for shorter working hours to come from the top down, it would probably take the introduction of such working practices by at least one large-scale employer in order for them to become in any way widespread. Once the conditions this employer provided became known, other employers would then be likely to follow suit. This would be due not only to employees migrating to firms offering such contracts, but also the presumed increase in productivity itself. 

Whilst a creative professional such as a Graphic Designer might jump at the opportunity to do more with less, an NHS Doctor might find such proposals highly unrealistic.



Another way that shorter working hours could become widespread would be from the bottom up - where a number of small firms would adopt the practice. This might eventually reach a 'critical-mass' (as we have already mentioned), where more and more companies would begin to implement shorter hours in order to reap the benefits. Eventually, larger organisations would have to take notice, as employees interested in a more favourable work/life balance would gravitate towards these smaller firms.

A more gradual approach might involve a normalisation of ROWE working practices. Whilst ROWE allows for truncated working hours, it also, by its very nature, guarantees productivity - because it is a 'results-only' work environment. ROWE could be implemented on a daily basis - with employees 'clocking off' once their tasks are completed, or over a longer-term. This might involve 'optional' Friday working - where 'optional' assumes that targets have been met to required standards, ratified by a line-manager. 

Would shorter hours work in all roles?

What this argument misses of course, is that not everyone in the UK works in a 9-5 office environment. How would shorter working hours cross over to occupations such as Bar Work, Healthcare professions, or Emergency Service roles? How would this affect employees on so-called 'zero-hour' contracts? Whilst a creative professional such as a Graphic Designer might jump at the opportunity to do more with less, an NHS Doctor might find such proposals highly unrealistic.

The reluctance on the part of employers to even trial such a scheme might seem confusing to an employee, but certainly not to a HR director.



Then there is the problem of pay. Whilst a salaried worker on regular hours might expect simply to receive the same basic pay if working time is cut and productivity increases/stays the same, the same cannot be said for hourly-paid workers, or Salespeople working on commission. Compounding this problem, employers are unlikely to be willing to employ extra staff to cover the shortfall in hours that would result from the implementation of such practices. Many high street retailers especially might find this impossible, given the struggles they face in the prevailing economic climate.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Although there are undoubtedly exceptions to the rule, it seems that many people and organisations in the UK could benefit from shorter working hours on an almost immediate basis, without upsetting the existing economic balance. This might normalise a shorter working day, which would then naturally spread to other occupations.

Conclusion - will it ever happen in the UK?

We have seen that there is a strong case for shorter working hours increasing productivity - as well as morale, and staff retention rates. This is something which is understood by many progressives within the business community, as well as much of the working population. But it seems that many organisations still operate on the principle that the more time a person spends at a desk, the more work they will subsequently produce. 

As is the case with any form of progress, smaller steps are generally safer than large revolutionary ones.



Given that jobs are currently scarce, it could be that the prevailing economy simply lacks the mobility of labour necessary to get such a trend off the ground. Many employees are not currently in a position to make demands of their employer - and especially not ones which might see them branded (erroneously) as 'lazy' or 'workshy'. Once the economy experiences an upturn, it might be expected that things would turn in the favour of progressive ideas, but this is not something which has happened in the past.

The reluctance on the part of employers to even trial such a scheme might seem confusing to an employee, but certainly not to a HR director. If, following a trial, a company felt that the proposed hours were not suitable, then what would it do? After six months tell its employees that they would suddenly be expected to go back to the previous status quo? This would be guaranteed to sow discontent amongst its workforce. As such, it seems unlikely that employers in the mainstream will trial this approach without more conclusive evidence of its benefits.

It takes a brave employer to implement a shorter working day, but as we have seen from the Swedish context, it's not something that is totally impossible. As is the case with any form of progress, smaller steps are generally safer than large revolutionary ones, and it seems likely that any impulse for shorter working hours to take hold on a national scale will come from a handful of forward-thinking businesses. Time will tell which way things will go, but it seems there is no logical reason why the Great British working day couldn't be a little shorter and fuller.