Dr Orla Kelly and Prof Juliet Schor
With government restrictions lifting and vaccination certificates in hand, Irish people are beginning to return to the “new normal”. Crises such as pandemics force societies to change in ways that previously seemed unfeasible and provide space to reimagine what is possible. For example, for many of those in paid employment, the pandemic upended the workplace experience. The disruption has also provided an opportunity to reconfigure working life for the better. One strategy that several organizations and governments around the world are trialling is reduced work time.
Does reduced working time always mean a 4 -day week?
No, often it takes the form of a 4-day week, but worktime reduction can also come in other shapes and sizes depending on the particular industry’s needs.
Is reduced work time feasible for employers?
A historical perspective on worktime reduction is helpful for understanding how it might affect businesses and profits. Hours of work in Europe began to decline in the 1870s and have mostly been on a downward trajectory since then. Historically, employers have resisted shorter hours. But the record shows that this process is not economically harmful. Shorter hours are typically associated with higher per hour productivity. Work reorganization, especially when workers themselves can make changes, allows organizations to eliminate low-value activity (e.g. meetings) and make each hour in the workplace count. The evidence from recent reforms shows that giving employees a day off without loss of pay is a good deal for businesses and employees. In addition to making up the productivity, companies can save on fewer sick days, better retention, and an enhanced labour pool to choose from.
So, what might reduced worktime mean for the Irish workforce?
Evidence suggests that spending less time working could offer considerable benefits to our wellbeing. Notably, in the Irish context, days lost to work-related stress, depression, and anxiety have been steadily increasing over the last decade, while work-related stress among employees in Ireland doubled from 8 per cent in 2010 to 17 per cent in 2015 . Working fewer hours could help to offset this problem. Those who work less have more leisure time and therefore do more of what they want, increasing life satisfaction . Those with shorter working hours also have more time to sleep, eat better, and exercise, improving wellbeing outcomes .
How does working from home compare to reduced work time?
First, working from home is not an option for everyone.
Second, where working from home is possible and desirable, there is no reason remote workers cannot also enjoy reduced work time. Indeed, for many employers and employees, home-work arrangements during the pandemic have brought many benefits.
However, it is worth noting that the blurring of boundaries between home and work has not worked well for everyone. According to a recent report of workforce experiences in Ireland, half of those women and a third of men surveyed have been experiencing difficulties balancing work and home stress since the pandemic . The mental health of working mothers has been particularly negatively impacted . So, in all, there is no reason the onset of working from home should preclude the exploration of other new work arrangements.
How reduced work time reduced to other flexible work arrangements?
Existing flexible work arrangements such as parental leave and flexible schedules can mitigate the adverse impacts of competing work and care responsibilities, particularly for women . However, opt-in flexible work programs can limit participants’ career prospects and reinforce the unequal division of unpaid labour in the home . On the other hand, a universal work time reduction policy may well offset these disadvantages because everyone will have more time to dedicate to their other responsibilities.
So, if reduced time is good for people, what about the planet?
As Ireland builds its post-pandemic future, we must do so in a way to acknowledges the planet’s ecological limits. Encouragingly, the Irish government has already committed to limiting Ireland’s ongoing contribution to the crisis per the Climate Action Bill 2021. Very often, the societal changes needed to meet these environmental targets are framed in sacrificial terms. However, there are many opportunities for ” double dividend wins”, namely policy intervention, beneficial for both people and the planet. Reduced working time represents one such opportunity if having more free time allows people to live in less carbon-intensive ways. More on this later…