Britons do work the longest hours but a four-day week is not the answer – this is what we should do instead

We need to think about whether reducing the number of days we work would actually tackle the problem of low productivity and excessive stress

Adrian Moorhouse
Saturday 20 April 2019 13:47 BST
Spring Statement: John McDonnell says Government has created 'large-scale jobs market of low pay, long hours and precarious work'

The UK has been building a bit of a reputation for itself, and I’m not talking about its ability to push back a Brexit deadline. While politicians have been complaining about working overtime, non-politicians across the country have also been busy. In fact, a bit too busy, according to recent analysis by the TUC that found Brits are working the longest hours in the EU, but are on average, less productive.

In this context, it may not come as a surprise that our own research shows that over a third (34 per cent) of UK employees feel more stressed now than they did two years ago. Almost one in three (30 per cent) workers who are already stressed think that a four-day working week would relieve stress. In fact, some organisations have already started to put these initiatives into action. For example, an Australian company recently condensed their five-day week into four days, giving their employees a day off on Wednesdays.

Of course, there is no shortage of studies showing the negative impact excessive stress has on people’s ability to be productive, and few would doubt that consistently working long hours can cause stress. I’m sure most of us want to make changes in our lives, and to fight against an extreme work culture, like the 12-hour working day.

But before saying goodbye to the five-day working week, we need to think about whether reducing the number of days we work would actually tackle the problem of low productivity and excessive stress.

While the idea of a four-day working week has clearly captured the public imagination, in reality, there is a real risk that it could lead to people working extra-long hours for those four days and feeling more stressed with an unhealthier work-life balance as a result.

No matter how many days we work, we will still experience pressure during our working lives – and this shouldn’t always be seen as a negative. What we need to focus on is ensuring we have the ability and tools to manage pressure and stress effectively, which will allow us to be more productive and perform better.

We found that one of the biggest issues contributing to a rise in unmanageable levels of stress amongst UK employees is too little support from management. Nearly half (56 per cent) of respondents feel like their business doesn’t provide them with the resources to cope with negative feelings at work.

Shortening the working week would do little to address this issue. A better solution is to give employees the skills and strategies to effectively manage stress. This includes training employees to rethink and recognise the value of resilience as a tool to improve performance under pressure and simultaneously protect their wellbeing.

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So two things are most important then – tools to manage stress and a supportive working environment. Alongside providing resources around resilience, HR and leadership teams should create a culture where high levels of pressure are matched with high levels of support. Managers also have an important role to play in noticing issues and helping their team manage pressure.

As we can see, shortening hours is not the silver bullet here. It’s just condensing the same issues, the same stresses and the same negative working cultures into a shorter timeframe. What we should instead focus on is an overhaul of what we consider corporate culture and a healthy workplace. This is not only the right thing to do, but will benefit both business performance and productivity in the long run.

Adrian Moorhouse is managing director of Lane4, a management consultancy

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