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, Business Editor
Monday, January 16, 2012
Monday morning, start of the week. But are you tired already; exhausted by the sheer push-and-pull of working life; time-poor; stressed out; forced to plug non-stop into your smart phone or email account; seemingly unable to escape from the tyrannical treadmill of your job?
You are not alone.
But at least, you might think, you have a job, and a roof over your head - not a bad thing, particularly as this week we will learn the latest unemployment figures and wonder yet again whether the eurozone is heading for some kind of economic armageddon, possibly taking us all with it.
Amid all the doom and gloom, keeping your head down might just seem the best option. Wherever you work, as jobs are lost, everyone it seems, is under increasing pressure to do more and more.
Technology too, is also playing a part, with growing evidence that rather than making life easier, gizmos such as smart phones and laptops are in fact making it harder for people to switch off from the workplace. Little wonder that companies such as Volkswagon recently announced plans to switch off emails outside of working hours.
But is there another way to running the economy than one that sees simultaneous sees people cast out of work, while those that remain are forced to do more and more?
One think tank, The New Economics Foundation, thinks there is - working less.
It sounds like madness, but the foundation is advocating a move towards introducing a 21 hour week, an idea it believes whose time has come.
This it believes would re-balance the economy in terms far more fundamental than those talked about by ministers - who simply mean relying less on banking and finance and more on manufacturing.
And while business lobby groups in this country push for less red tape as a means of kickstarting growth, the foundation cites evidence showing that working less has actually created more jobs even during a recession.
Dr Mike Harris, senior associate in social policy at the foundation, said there was a compelling case for reduced hours.
“We think there are three main benefits to the idea of moving over time towards a shorter working week,” he said. “The first is in an era of quite high unemployment and low growth during the recession of the last few years, it will make it easier to create jobs. If you are hiring for three to four days a week, it means you can hire people across the week. It’s an easier way of spreading jobs and working hours around.
“The second is that it will be better for the environment. What the research points to, is that if people are spending less time at work, that’s less time commuting and means they have more time to spend at home. When they feel less time pressured, they spend less time on activities that will be damaging to the environment.
“The third benefit is that people will have more time to spend with their families or they can volunteer in the community.”
Yet thoughts of more time in the garden, or even with the family, and a stroll to Norwich Cathedral to listen to Evensong, are rudely awakened. That’s all very well, but what about paying the mortgage?
Dr Harris admits that such a change is not going to happen overnight.
“The countries that have made this move, it’s taken them 10 to 15 years to put this into effect,” he said. “A good example is the Netherlands. In the early 1980s the Dutch government quite consciously said they wanted to move in this direction. The way they started doing this was by hiring public sector workers on 80pc time, or four days a week. Over time it spread across the economy and became a normal thing to do. It did lead to increased employment, and the better quality of life led to a less stressed workforce.
“Now in Holland nearly half of people work what we call part-time. It’s quite normal and there isn’t the stigma that’s attached. It spread across the board, the next section that took it up was financial services, and banking, then it went to the rest of the economy.”
But even over a decade how could it be done? The trick is, apparently, to let the public sector go first, and also the young.
“There’s a long-term cultural shift we think would have to happen,” Dr Harris said. “The way they did it in Holland, and it seems the most logical approach, is to do it for people who are just entering the labour market, by offering those coming out of schools and universities three to four days a week.
“For them it’s normal and they adjust their lifestyles accordingly. In fact when you offer them another day, they don’t want to do that, because they value their three/four day weekend.”
Government, too could play a part, by granting employees the right to ask for a shorter working week, and changing the welfare benefits system to help people on lower incomes, so the idea is not just the preserve of the rich.
“It’s much more difficult for people who are used to working five days a week or even longer. If we can make it a little bit easier for people already in the workplace to approach their employers and not feel they are putting their jobs at risk.”
Britain’s long hours culture is reported to cost the economy £21bn in dealing with fallout of work-related illness and stress. The foundation also believes tackling it could also address other social problems, such as transport gridlock, and the high cost of housing.
“The reason we are interested in this agenda, is that it raises questions about other things, like the cost of housing. In Holland and Germany, there’s more renting of property so people have not made that big investment. The problem here is that if you have a big mortgage, you need to keep making the payments, so you tend to be locked into a full-time working lifestyle.
“In Germany, during the last recession, the government introduced a proposal so that people could go down to three to four days a week, rather than being made redundant, or going on to unemployment benefits.
“What happened there, during a recession, was that Germany increased its employment rates. Academic studies have shown that if a similar measure had been introduced in the US, it would have created 10m more jobs.
Last week hundreds of people attended a seminar in London to hear more from leading economists about how the proposals could work.
“People have strong reactions either way,” Dr Harris said. “We’ve been struck this week, just how much interest there has been. There is definitely a shift toward these kinds of ideas.
“That reflects the fact that people know things are going to be difficult for quite a few years, and we need to think of ways of not creating a lost generation of people, who are out of the workforce, and we need new ideas.
“I think mainstream businesses and organisations are more open to it,” Dr Harris said. “The more they hear about how it can be done practically, and the benefits to business, in terms of people’s health and a more productive workforce, the more they are warming to the idea.
“There are companies like BT that do encourage flexible working for staff and it’s benefits. They have said it’s saved them £10m and they keep staff for much longer. And there are some organisations, who are dead set against it.
“We think this kind of change needs to go alongside looking at the welfare and benefits system, in order to support it. You can’t just change people’s hours or work, without looking at things like taxation and welfare. The whole thing needs to be done together, so that people on low pay are better supported. Otherwise, as you point to, it’s just going to be something for people who are better paid.
“It’s also a generational thing. We were talking to somebody at BT, who was at the seminar and they said people who are coming out of college and university now, want to work in a different way - often they want to work nine months a year and take a three month break. And as an employer they want to attract that kind of employee.
“I think it’s one of those ideas, which politicians might be a bit wary of engaging with, because when you first hear it, it does sound a bit of weird idea that working less might benefit the economy. But I think the politicians might catch on, the more people are talking about it.”
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