Labour’s four day working week is not all pie in the sky

19 Nov 2019

 

There has been a lot of division in the Labour party and beyond about whether a four-day working week for all is realistic or even desirable. A chaotic mismatch of statements from shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has gone some way to reinvigorating this already contentious debate. Ashworth claimed that NHS staff would be exempt from Labour’s plans for a working week capped at 32 hours; McDonnell claimed the proposals would apply to everybody. 

 

Despite apparent contradictions, it seems that both men may have expressed the same point in ways that appeared to be at odds. Ashworth went on to make a series of statements on Talkradio in which he implied that McDonnell’s earlier statements had been correct: the 32 hour working week (with no loss of pay) would apply to everyone, but would be phased in over a period of ten years.

 

Perhaps because of Labour’s ostensible internal contradictions, the four day week proposal has been met with sneers and even outrage by the right-wing press, with many commenting that if the framework was applied to the NHS, the extra staffing costs would cancel out the injection of funds Labour has promised. 

 

Indeed, while with many jobs it is relatively easy to argue that shorter working hours could increase productivity by decreasing tiredness, increasing happiness and inducing employee motivation, with clinical work, these arguments are less likely to hold. For if you are involved in patient care, part of your work involves being present. Patients will still need to have a minimum number of doctors and nursing staff available at all times, regardless of the productivity levels of those members of staff. So if each doctor and nurse has their working week capped at 32 hours (and consider most doctors work in excess of 40 hours a week on average, undertake overtime, and often take on extra locum shifts), extra staff will need to be employed to cover the hours that those medical professionals will no longer be allowed to do. With current staff shortages of roughly 30,000 nurses and 3,000 GPs, finding the extra staff to cover these shifts not only seems to be cost-inefficient but an impossible task.

 

And yet, what Labour proposes is not just fantasy. Productivity increases, while not as relevant in fields where employees are required to be present to fulfil a duty of care, can still make a huge difference across many professions, including medical ones. 

 

Doctors and nurses who experience better working conditions (enabled through a combination of more manageable hours and funding increases to our health service) are likely to be more alert to their patients, less likely to make mistakes, and in a better frame of mind for building genuinely positive relationships with their patients - something often overlooked but so vital for patient recovery. 

 

Consider the case of Dr Hadiza Bawa Garba. The community paediatrician had recently returned to work from maternity leave, and had stepped in to work on a hospital ward where the doctor usually in charge was on a course. During a busy shift, mistakes relating to one patient, a six year old boy named Jack Adcock, were made by Bawa Garba and other members of hospital staff. Roughly twelve hours into her shift, as a result of abnormalities that had not been spotted in time (and some drugs administered to Jack by his parents against the advice of Bawa Garba) Jack died. As a result, Bawa Garba was temporarily struck off the medical register.

 

But many medical professionals protested against the decision, noting that Bawa Garba had been set up to fail by a system of low resources and overwork. Working twelve hours without a break understandably had meant that Bawa Garba was not alert in the way that she should have been. And in the medical profession, mistakes made as a result of this can and do cost lives. 

 

With better working hours, individual doctors and nurses can save lives and time by working efficiently, productively and remaining alert. The amount of money saved as a result of increased efficiency would likely go some way to offsetting the expenditure of hiring the extra staff needed to allow medical professionals’ working hours to be capped at 32.

 

And though mistakes made in other professions may not be fatal, working reduced hours is likely to be of great benefit in many sectors. Previous trials of four day working weeks have found huge increases in productivity, higher levels of staff wellbeing, and have even prompted staff to think more creatively while working. 

And this really shouldn’t be that surprising. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, the working week would be cut to 30 hours as a result of advancing technologies that would create wealth and material solutions that would afford humans far more leisure time. His ideas have not come to fruition at all. 

 

And yet when you consider the domestic sphere, and all the labour that would have gone into unpaid work nearly a century ago, it quickly becomes apparent that long paid working hours may be something of a social construct. 

 

Consider technologies like dishwashers and washing machines: these have saved people vast amounts of time that they would previously have spent on domestic chores. People are happy to use that extra time for leisure pursuits or family activities. But when it comes to paid work, there is a certain status attached to longer hours, especially in traditional white-collar professions. Think of the long hours worked by investment bankers and corporate lawyers. Working twelve or even sixteen hour days makes no-one more productive. In fact, it can only decrease an individual’s productivity to a level where it makes logical sense for them to work less.

 

But logic does not seem to be applied here. Instead, for these jobs which offer big pay packets, long hours are seen as a price to pay to prove that workers deserve their salaries. The long working hours these professionals undertake feed into the glorification of workaholism - ultimately a dangerous frame of mind which positions an individual’s career as central to their life; their finances as indicative of their success; their stress-levels as proof of their moral fibre.

 

Under a 32 hour week, inefficient but glorified long working hours would become a thing of the past. Instead, such a legal cap could see society re-evaluate the things it ought to hold dear. Family, community, leisure and the time to think creatively are all pivotal facets of human life which suffer when constrained by long working hours. By embracing a shorter working week, we may all be surprised by what we become capable of - both professionally and personally. 

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