Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Can a four-day work week really help save Scotland’s economy?

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Last year, Scotland pioneered a new four-day week as part of a plan to save money and improve life expectancy. The idea was so touted that it was dubbed the “biggest radical experiment ever tried in public health.”

On the eve of the July 1 trial’s start, the island’s medical association declared “there is no scientific evidence to support a change in working patterns,” according to the Guardian.

Naturally, there’s been protest and condemnation, including ridicule from British comedians.

I speak for many when I say that this radical plan would prove fatal to Scotland’s economy and the well-being of its citizens.

In a recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Robert Oakley and Alice Lupton looked at several ways that a four-day week might improve health. They wrote, “The advantages of a four-day week were expected to be at least in two areas: worker health and productivity.” Those were, in essence, costs and benefits.

Neither analysis suggested a significant improvement in either area, however. The biggest cost was lost productivity, with each working day costing about $1,000 (as calculated by British economist James Pounds). On the benefits side, the authors said, “Work hours may also change from working later, or from employment in an office.”

The problem is that, when managers tried, the problem didn’t go away. Author Marcus Dyer tells the story of a boss who introduced a four-day week for his electrical workers. It only helped them a bit.

In a 2016 study, a team at Harvard Medical School looked at the effects of a four-day week in a private hospital in Wales. They report “only minimal improvements” to employee and patient health, and that in many cases there wasn’t a single day when the four-day schedule didn’t raise error rates.

If workplaces don’t try the four-day work week in some style, their employees will have to look for alternate ways to keep up with their jobs.

For those who can’t afford to keep up, changing jobs is always an option. But if workplaces don’t try the four-day work week in some style, their employees will have to look for alternate ways to keep up with their jobs. And that will take time. If other issues take priority, it will be a trade-off that not everyone can make.

As the two authors put it, “Decreased participation in the labor force is one of the most reliable determinants of poor health.”

Every finding supports that idea. If you’re a person who wants to be productive and keep busy, sacrificing six or seven hours of what you do each day to work a four-day week isn’t going to help you.

Think about it. Not only will workers be distracted by completing the chores that now occupy the rest of their time — cleaning, cooking, tending the garden, banking — but they will have the time also to do more consumer-based activities — retail shopping, laundry, housing maintenance, etc.

In addition, managers will have to get used to changing their work schedules, and those who are adept at it could get more creative about finding jobs outside the workplace. With few success stories of four-day work week trials, this can’t be said for others, including New Zealand and the U.S.

And of course, the whole idea of a four-day week runs headlong into the fact that many of us work best — and sleep best — in short and steady cycles.

What we have here is a messy, inefficient plan that poses a serious risk to Scottish health and economy. Ultimately, society gains the least amount of time and the least most possible output.

So, Mr. Cameron, when your five-day work week starts, invite me in for dinner.

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