This week, education secretary Damian Hinds announced plans to cut teachers workloads in the face of shortages that are leaving schools paying £835m a year on supply agencies to cover lessons. At a conference in Birmingham last week, Hinds stated that long hours and large workloads were exhausting staff and putting potential teachers off the profession, something he cited as being the main reason for schools failing to recruit and retain an adequate number of teachers.
This comes in the wake of the latest Royal College of Nursing survey that paints a picture of nurses that are chronically overworked, with figures showing that many nurses work in wards that are understaffed to the point of compromising patient safety. This is no surprise; with 40,000 nursing vacancies in the UK, many nurses are now working in chronically short-staffed units, creating an environment in which they receive little support and face an undue amount of responsibility on top of their already excessive workloads.
This kind of exhaustion is unsurprising; the TUC estimated that workers clocked up a whopping £33.6bn worth of unpaid overtime in the last year alone. Nor are these the exclusive epidemics of teaching and nursing; last year, 12.5m working days were lost due to stress, depression, and anxiety, with 44% of all cases being due to workload. High workloads create the chronic stress that has been linked to an increased risk of health issues ranging from high blood pressure to strokes as well as the onset or exacerbation of serious mental health issues.
In an economy built on the backs of a chronically exploited workforce, it’s time to get strict on overtime and give people a working schedule that fits around their lives and not the other way round. How can we do this? The answer: slashing working hours and introducing a four-day working week.
Not only will this alleviate the chronic stress of an overworked population, this solution also addresses both unemployment and underemployment. With over 4 per cent of the population currently unemployed and a further 3.3 million ‘underemployed’ (those not receiving enough hours at work), a four-day week would redistribute hours, taking pressure off those overworked and giving unemployed and underemployed people more opportunities, and ultimately creating a population with significantly more leisure time.
Not only this, a four-day working week could potentially increase productivity. Studies have shown that working fewer hours encourages greater focus and enhances productivity, meaning that people work better hour for hour. Less time at work also means less time off work. As workloads are eased, the pressure taken off workers will benefit health and mean less absence.
It could even be better for the planet. The New Economics Foundation believes that a four-day week could also reduce carbon emissions and ease climate change. The think tank suggested that countries with shorter workings weeks are less likely to produce excessive carbon footprints as the move would reduce gas-guzzling commutes and leave workplaces powered down for an extra day per week.
Despite these evidently rich economic benefits, the true need for and benefit of a reduced working week is for the people. In a corporate climate that increasingly treats people like machines, fighting for a reduction in working hours is essential in order to reclaim the kind of autonomy that defines us as human. A four-day week must be the first step towards reclaiming the time for leisure, rest, and recuperation that is a fundamental prerequisite for good health and sane mind.
Indeed, fighting for the improvement of working conditions and the reduction of working hours was at the very core of the original Labour movement. In the wake of the last year’s elections, which saw an unprecedented amount of support for the labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s new leadership, it is clear that much of the UK’s population is frustrated by the stagnant political climate and eager for social reform. Thus, working toward a four-day week must become part of a larger drive for positive, people-focused social change, including a push to introduce a Universal Basic Income and shorten the working day. These goals are essential in order to create a society that allows people to flourish as individuals rather than be broken by an economy that saps their life force for profit.