Working Less: The Financialization of Everything

Hannah discusses the new 4 Day Week Global movement.

What would you do if you had one more day off every week?

4 Day Week Global is one of many pilot programs studying the effects of four-day work weeks in a multitude of sectors, with no loss in pay for employees. In September, the program celebrated hitting the halfway point of a six-month trial period involving 70 UK organizations and over 3,000 employees across 30 sectors.

The hypothesis is that workers will be more productive if they’re able to get more rest on time off, addressing the productivity crisis revealed by a 2019 study that ranked the UK bottom in Northwestern Europe in value added towards the economy per hour worked. In the halfway point check-in survey, 88% of respondents stated that the four-day week model is working “well” for their business, 46% say business productivity has maintained the same, 34% say it has slightly improved, and 15% say it has significantly improved. 86% of respondents claim that they would be likely to retain the four-day structure after the trial period.

 

Credit: Creative Commons

The British trial period is not a special case. In most similar studies, less burnout reduces health care costs, mistakes, and poor service. Companies report lower turnover and a higher-quality applicant pool. Workers are as, if not more, productive working four-day weeks as opposed to the traditional five, demonstrating a willingness to squeeze productivity into four days in return for an extra cherished day off to spend with loved ones, knock off errands, or indulge in hobbies.

Regarding the issue of value per hour worked, Norwegians and Danes, the Europeans with the shortest hours of work, flaunt astonishing levels of productivity. On the other end of the spectrum, Brits and Italians work far more hours, but contribute far less productivity. Even in the cases of companies that can’t afford to only operate four days a week, the cost of hiring additional employees was offset by lower sick pay and unemployment benefits.

Much of the data clearly suggests that a four-day work week has outstanding benefits on balance sheets and GDPs. But a four-day work week offers a benefit with less tangible value: what if working less could help change our attitudes towards human life from quantitative to qualitative, from defining our worth in terms of our productivity to in terms of — wait for it — how much we enjoy our lives?

 

Credit: Creative Commons

In his 1910 volume How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, Arnold Bennett wrote, “But if one cannot arrange that an income of twenty-four hours a day shall exactly cover all proper items of expenditure, one does muddle one’s life entirely. The supply of time, though gloriously regular, is cruelly restricted.” Bennett was ahead of his time in his subtle criticism of our financialization of everything. Working less days, even in a trial period, allows people to step back and ask, “How much time should I actually be devoting to work?”

Productivity culture and the financialization of everything has even changed our ability to spend and enjoy the little time off we do have. In Ancient Greece, “Leisure was an active state of mind. Good leisure meant playing sports, learning music theory, debating qualified peers and doing philosophy. Leisure was not easy, but it was supposed to be gratifying.”

Historians believe that a shift towards viewing leisure as time to prepare for work was accelerated by the Industrial Revolution. We now face high expectations even for time off, with pressure to cram our leisure time with activities that will impress and one-up our peers. Even our own leisure time is not our own like it once was.

Never before have we been forced to drastically reconsider how we spend our time as we have during the pandemic. Studies show that our desires for freedom and self-direction have increased through the lockdowns, potentially a result of more time available to pursue “artistic and intellectual” activities (and even just a simple response to being stuck at home). On a grimmer note, the pandemic has also made us vastly more aware of our own mortality. There is nothing quite like the awareness of your own demise to cause an existential crisis upon consideration of how you spend your time.

 

Credit: Creative Commons

4 Day Week Global’s halfway point results, which have received generous attention in the media, may help change attitudes towards work. Worldwide, the pandemic has accelerated workplace anxiety and burnout. Over 50% of US employees report feeling stressed over half the day.

Beyond productivity and economic benefits, the four-day week presents an opportunity for a crucial step in a more balanced life and a mindful attitude towards the lifetime that often surprises us to not feel quite as long as we predict it to.

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