Interview with Aidan Harper: Moving the World to a 4 Day Work Week
I recently had the opportunity to have a chat with Aidan Harper of the 4 Day Week campaign. I was excited to talk to him about how a 30 hour week could soon be the norm and how it can benefit our communities.
10 min read
8 Jun, 2022
Here's my conversation with Aidan Harper of the 4 Day Week campaign:
Can you introduce yourself and share a bit about your background and your work on the 4 Day Week campaign?
My name is Aidan Harper – I am a researcher at a place called the New Economics Foundation which is a think-tank based in London. I am also a member of the 4 Day Week campaign which is a UK based national campaign for a general reduction in working hours to a 4 day week without a reduction in pay.
What is the New Economics Foundation? What's their mission and what is the history of the organization?
The New Economics Foundation was set up a few decades ago in response to what was perceived as a failure in economics to take into account a number of fundamental things like sustainability and wellbeing that standard measures of the economy — and classical economics — tend to ignore. It was an attempt to create a heterodox for economics which took into account society, wellbeing, the environment, and to create a form of economics which met the needs of a happy population living within environmental limits.
Since then, this new form of economics has grown and gained a little bit of influence and is being discussed in the UK in response to a series of social, economic, and political crises including the 2008 financial crash, deepening inequality, and the current climate emergency.
Would you like a 4 day work week?
What is the relationship between the New Economics Foundation and the 4 Day Week campaign and how long has the 4 Day Week campaign been running?
The 4 Day Week Campaign is an independent campaign which the New Economics Foundation supports and I am a representative of the New Economics Foundation on the 4 Day Week Campaign. It's important to recognize that the 4 Day Week Campaign is an independent organization in its own right.
I set out to start the 4 Day Week Campaign about two and a half years ago and the New Economics Foundation has been supporting it for about 8-10 months now.
Historically, the New Economics Foundation has done work on working time reduction as well. In 2010, it came out with a groundbreaking report called 21 Hours which is a provocative think-piece about what the UK economy would be like if we were to generally reduce the working week to 21 hours.
It took a particularly environmental point of view and spoke about the impacts on consumption and how to live sustainably — but also do it in such a way which would increase our quality of life. They also wrote a book called Time on Our Side which added to the collection of essays that spoke to the benefits of working time reduction.
Since publishing these writings, the New Economics Foundation, has become a voice in the media when it comes to working time reduction. Now — in connection with trade unions — they are doing lots of work in the areas of automation and its effect on work and also the crisis of overwork which the UK is currently experiencing.
Can you go over some of the benefits of the 4 day work week and how it will improve society?
There are a number of things to discuss and I could go on for a while but I'd like to first focus on overwork and its effect on mental health.
Within the UK, there is a worrying and increasing trend of overwork in the workplace. If we look at the Health and Safety Executive (which is the UK government's statistics body for health and safety) we can see that all types of physical work related illnesses — like musculoskeletal disorders and cancers — have been generally decreasing. However, recently work related anxiety, stress, and depression have been increasing against the general trend of reduction in workplace illnesses.
The single biggest cause of work related stress, anxiety, and depression is overwork. So much so that last year one in four of all sick days was the result of overwork — which is huge proportion of sickness caused directly by overwork. In some ways, you can look at this statistic as a massive drag on the economy.
Losing that many work days is very expensive but, more importantly, it's also a huge societal malaise. Every day people are feeling the effects of overwork and this statistic doesn't even take into account the number of people who aren't taking sick days but are feeling generally burnt out and are just barely getting by.
To summarize — the 4 day work week is a pragmatic response to a the problem of overwork that is leading to a crisis in mental health and wellbeing.
The second benefit I would like to address is gender equality. The 5-day model of a work has only been around for a few decades and reflects a male breadwinner form of work which is old and outdated. This working model was created in a time that was obviously incredibly gendered and it still entrenches and exacerbates gender inequalities both within and outside of work.
We live in a patriarchal world which has a lot of unfairnesses — one of which is that woman are more likely to take on caring responsibilities and therefore need to work part-time. To take on these responsibilities, you might have the ability to reduce your hours — with a reduction in pay as well — or you can take up part-time work in other professions.
But as we know, part-time is not as good as full-time work. It's less secure and offers less opportunities for advancement. That means that, within the labour market, you have a higher proportion of women doing part-time work who are paid less and are less secure in their jobs than their — usually male — full-time equivalents. This imbalance is a basic injustice within work.
So, if on one side of the coin, we have inequalities in paid work; on the other side of this same coin, we have unpaid work. Women in the UK do 60% more unpaid work than men which is obviously a base injustice — as men should do their fair share of caring responsibilities. There are a number variety of factors that go into why men aren't taking on their fair share of caring responsibilities and one of these factors is that our current model of work exists as a major barrier to distributing unpaid work fairly.
One positive development recently in the UK is that a lot of young fathers are wanting to spend more time with their kids when they're young and be a proper carer. However, they are finding that the current working model of a 5 day work week is acting as a barrier to them spending more time with their kids. We're seeing that the current model of full-time work is a impediment to our ability to distribute both paid and unpaid work equitably between genders.
A third point I'd like to make is that, in order to engage with your community, and to be an active democratic citizen, you need time outside of work to engage in those activities. At the moment we have a model of work that systematically takes this time away from us. Any thriving democracy should create the conditions necessary to engage fully in that democracy and at the moment we don't have that.
Those points are clear benefits to adopting a 4 day working week. Can you see any dangers in adopting a 4 day work week?
We make the case for a general reduction in working hours without a reduction in pay. We also make the case for a steady managed transition to shorter hours with a bolstered welfare state in such a way that the most vulnerable and underpaid in society are protected. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with moving towards a world of less work — the dangers are in how that transition happens. The principles underlying that transition are about supporting those who are most in need. It's about seeing the reduction in working hours not as a silver bullet answer to a series of social and economic problems but as part of a broader platform of economic reform that we desperately need anyway.
With this transition, what is the strategy for implementing the change?
Working time operates very differently across sectors, jobs, and countries and the way in which you reduce working hours will vary depending on where you look. There is the level of the individual, the level of the firm, there are trade unions, sectors, and there is national legislation. There will be particular strategies with which you can use to reduce working time at each of those levels.
For example, on the individual basis, a lot of people at this moment in time can reduce their working time as individuals. Usually these are people who are very well paid and have good rights in the workplace but we have seen a lot of people taking up this option with a reduction in pay.
This is not option for the vast majority of people; however, we could bolster the rights that people have in the workplace moving forward to give more people this opportunity. For example, you could envisage a world in which everyone has the right to have extra time off rather than an increase in their wage.
On the firm level, you could envisage having a form of corporation tax which penalizes companies who overwork their employees and reward those that implement shorter hours. You could envisage a general cultural change or perhaps a powerful business case about how moving towards shorter hours is good for the economy and good for individual businesses. We've already seen this with a number of companies in the UK that see the benefits of only working 4 days per week.
The most famous example at the moment is a company in New Zealand called Perpetual Guardian who moved its employees to a four day week and found that it increased wellbeing, it decreased sick leave, it improved work-life balance, it made for happier employees, and it made for more loyal employees. The labour market is tightening in the UK and a lot of companies are using an extra day off per week as a tool to recruit the best employees. However, This trend is more common in well-paying office jobs where the process to implement a shorter work week has been figured out.
There is precedent for this change. Historically, in the United States, Ford famously implemented the 40-hour work week and significantly raised wages for his workers. Kellogg introduced a 6-hour day in his factories significantly reducing accidents and increasing profits. These are the kinds of capitalist heroes people talk about with regards to the reduction of working time but trade unions are also a central component to this movement.
From the very moment of inception of industrial capitalism, people have organized into trade unions to fight against the encroachment of work into people's lives. Our working days of the week, weekends, and bank holidays have all been things that unions have campaigned for. Increasingly, trade unions are lining up behind the cause of reducing working time.
Just last year, the CWU in the UK had a significant victory in getting 120,000 postal workers a reduction in working time to 35 hours per week — down from 39 hours per week. In the UK, we have the TUC which is calling for a 4-day work week by the end of the century. These unions and a series of other unions are all calling for a reduction in working time.
As far as policy goes, France has famously legislated for a 35 hour week and that any work done over 35 hours would be at a significant cost in terms of overtime pay. This approach is one way of reducing the working week generally through policy.
So I have to ask — with your efforts on this project, are you working 4 days per week right now?
Within the New Economics Foundation there is a very flexible working policy and many of my colleagues work 4 days per week. I don't — I believe in collective working time reduction rather than individual choices — but we are working — along with our own internal union — towards a 4 day working week. That being said, our CEO and senior management are very much behind the cause of shorter working hours. Internally, we've created a working group and we're mapping out what our strategy is for moving to shorter hours. As part of this process, we want to create a package of strategies that other organizations can use to implement a shorter work week themselves which I'm greatly looking forward to.
What can readers do to help this cause?
One of the biggest barriers at this moment in time is the particular culture we have around work and the position it has in our society. The work ethic in North America is one of the most toxic forms of work ethic we have — particularly in the US with types like Elon Musk that brag about working long hours and see it as a badge of honour.
That's really terrible because we see — as a society — that the ability to work is the most important thing for an individual. That's, to me, inherently dehumanizing. So wherever you are, and on social media, the best thing you can do is to attack the predominance of overwork in our society and to recognize that it is bad for our mental health, it's bad for our society, and it's bad for our democracy.
Another thing you can do is join a trade union. Raise the issue of working time with your employer and push for a reduction in working hours. Remember, a reduction in working hours is not a zero-sum-game and there is a strong business case for it.
Bring up the cause with your political parties and generally think about the position of work in our society. The central cause of the campaign is to re-politicize working time as something that isn't natural or inevitable but something that we can, and should, change.
Most people have grown up with the 5-day working week and it does seem very normal. The first thing that we can do is recognize it as something that has a history to it which has already been deeply contested and we need to start recognizing that and challenging that now.