Should the US adopt a shorter working week?

Man in suit on the beach

Today is Labour Day, which means that many Americans, especially those who work a standard 9-5, Monday-to-Friday work week, have a rare three-day weekend.

But if some economists and social scientists get their way - to say nothing of lowly middle-managers and office drones - shorter workweeks will soon become the norm.

There is a growing body of evidence that shorter work weeks actually lead to more productive employees.

Right now, the US seems to value long work weeks for the sake of long work weeks. We put in more time at the office than other Western nations, but with less to show for it than one would hope.

According to Melissa Dahl, writing in New York Magazine, "The US is one of the most productive nations on the planet, second only to Luxembourg, but Americans work almost 20% more hours than individuals in Luxembourg. We're working longer days, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're achieving more."

An earlier report found that there was little correlation between hours worked, productivity, and wages. Writing in MarketWatch, Quentin Fortrell calculates that Germany works almost 45% fewer annual hours than Greece, but is 70% more productive, while annual German salaries are higher.

Reducing work hours has also reduced unemployment, he says, noting that "countries with the largest reduction in work hours had the largest increase in employment rates since the Great Recession".

The shorter work week is an idea that both corporate fat cats and tree-hugging environmentalists can love. Billionaires Carlos Slim and Larry Page have spoken publicly in support of shorter weeks, while CNBC cites a recent survey showing "that more than 69% of millionaires surveyed (those with investible assets of $1 million or more) said they believed the four-day work week is a 'valid idea'."

At the same time, closing down office car parks for an extra day a week has tremendous environmental impacts, according to Lynn Stuart Parramore writing in AlterNet, due to fewer commuting journeys. She also points out that less time in the office means less time sitting, which has been linked to health risks, and more time to tend to health problems that may go ignored in a typical 40-hour work week. "For many Americans, going to see a doctor involves sneaking off in the middle of the workday, because there's no time outside of work to do it. Ironically, they probably need the doctor more because they spend so much time in the office."

And of course, it's just better for overall morale, which is a boost to both employees and employers, who will have to deal with less turnover and a better motivated workforce.

So what's the catch? No one wants to be the first company to go dark one day a week when everyone else is still doing business. But Dahl, writing for New York Magazine, notes that the tide is turning - some companies offer summer hours, which could easily be transitioned to the rest of the year.

"Stretching the spirit of summer Fridays through all four seasons isn't an outlandish idea; it's already slowly starting to happen," she says, noting that 30% of US workers have some sort of flex-time scheduling. "This means that these workers are not stuck at work for a prescribed set of hours; they can create their own schedules in order to strike that mythical work-life balance."

For many the work week is already changing, and not for the better. According to the New York Times, those in the service economy are increasingly finding themselves beholden to efficency software that cuts down labour costs for companies while subjecting workers to ever-changing schedules and demands that they make themselves "on call" at all times.

And a report published today says workers are claiming an increase in wage theft - when employees are expected to show up early or stay after their scheduled shifts without any extra pay.

How a four-day work week would affect this trend has yet to broach the public conversation.

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