In summer Australians take a well-earned holiday. They pitch their tents by beaches and rivers, pick up novels, turn on the cricket and tune in to the slow rhythm of another blessed summer. Well, not quite.
Australians are taking shorter, more expensive holidays focused more on consumption than on rest and reflection as outlined by Ross Gittins recently. We have also accumulated 123 million days of outstanding leave.
Holidays are important for individuals, families and society and the trend towards reduced leave is a cause for real concern. Perhaps, though, the fantasy of "getting away from it all" wouldn’t have quite the same force each summer if we achieved a better balance between paid work and the rest of our lives throughout the year?
Last November, in an attempt to focus attention on Australia’s culture of overwork, The Australia Institute organised Go Home On Time Day. Australians work among the longest hours in the world and notch up two billion hours of unpaid overtime each year. Go Home on Time Day put the spotlight on an economic system that forces one part of the population to work much too much — while around 1.5 million Australians struggle with unemployment or underemployment.
According to the 2009 Australian Work and Life Index Survey, almost 50 per cent of women in full-time jobs would like to reduce their working hours and about one-third of men in full-time work are keen to do the same. The survey found that women working full-time wanted to reduce their average working weeks from 43.2 to 36.3 hours. In addition, 29 per cent of women working full-time felt that work was often — or always — interfering with their lives outside of work, an increase from 18 per cent in 2007. These findings point to more and more Australians who want an improved balance between paid work and the rest of their lives.
Flexibility has been a catchcry of industrial relations policy over the past two decades, but, in its neoliberal form, flexibility has worked to strengthen the managerial prerogative rather than to give Australians more control over their working lives. The defeat of the Howard government and subsequent (partial) repeal of its WorkChoices legislation was a major victory for those opposed to the neoliberal industrial relations agenda, but, while this win was important, Australians have barely started to rethink their relationship to paid work.
Go Home on Time Day was an attempt to kickstart a conversation on a range of scenarios for improving the experience of working Australians — both inside and outside the workplace. Part-time employment; additional paid leave in lieu of payrises; greater flexibility in how leave is used; improved rights for casuals; job guarantee schemes: these options may provide genuine flexibility and security for Australian workers.
A four-day week is another, more radical, idea that could help address the twin perils of overwork and un(der)employment. In a global context of high and — in many places — rising unemployment it might seem an unlikely policy option. But in the US, the epicentre of the current crisis, the four-day week is gaining support.
In 2008, Utah implemented a mandatory four-day week for 17,000 government workers as reported in a recent feature in Time. Salaries and total working hours remained the same (four 10-hour days, also termed a 4–10 work week, rather than five 8-hour days) but employees did not work on Fridays.
The results? A 13 per cent reduction in energy use and an estimated US$6 million savings in petrol costs for employees, for starters. Surveys found 82 per cent of workers in favour of keeping the new compressed week. Several local governments in the US have since followed Utah’s lead and General Motors has also introduced a 4–10 work week at some of its plants.
From an employer’s perspective, particularly a cash-strapped state or local government, the benefits of a four-day week in terms of reduced utilities costs are obvious.
The impact in terms of productivity is less clear. Workers who have more time to rest and spend with their families might be expected to log lower rates of absenteeism and "Google-time" at the office. On the other hand, employers could incur increased training costs if additional workers are required to meet the existing workload.
From an environmental perspective, the benefits of reduced greenhouse gas emissions (from lower electricity usage and reduced commuting) are also attractive, although these need to be set against any increases in domestic energy consumption.
The impacts of the tradeoff between an extra day off and a longer working day on individual employees would vary but it is clear that in Utah the overwhelming majority of workers backed the new arrangement.
One advantage of a four-day week over other options — like the French 35-hour week — lies in redefining a social norm by quarantining an additional day from the world of paid work. The 4–10 work week might not be the optimal structure but it could smooth the transition to a 4–36 or 4–32 work week in the future. An official four-day week would not mean that everyone would immediately start working only four days — just as many people work more than five days now — but it would establish a new social standard with a strong gravitational pull.
The four-day week will be fiercely resisted by some economists, politicians and businesspeople on the basis that it will reduce Australia’s productivity and competitiveness. While a wholesale shift to a four-day week could present challenges in terms of skills shortages and training requirements in particular industries, it is not clear what the impact would be across the economy as a whole. To generate some data for analysis, four-day week trials could be run in areas of state and local government services.
Whatever the narrow economic impacts, the case for a policy like the four-day week should be made primarily in social — and perhaps environmental — terms. Will it improve our quality of life? Will it have a positive effect on our families and relationships, on our mental and physical health? Will it help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions?
Campaigns for minimum wages and 40-hour weeks (and against child labour) were fought and won for fairness and justice — and not because cost-benefit analyses showed they were economically viable. Economic elites frequently argue that progressive reforms lead to economic disaster but — from equal pay for women to public healthcare and unemployment benefits — they have been consistently proved wrong.
Tackling the persistent challenges of overwork and un(der)employment will require bold thinking, creative strategies and vigorous public debate. Campaigns like Go Home on Time Day and Tourism Australia’s No Leave, No Life help bring these ideas into public debate — and to take the first steps toward deeper reevaluations of the relationship between our jobs and the rest of our lives.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.