Should we work a 4-day week?

The Guardian has recently put a focus on the millions of Britons who feel overstretched, struggling to balance work and family commitments, while others are underutilised, unemployed or underemployed. This culminates at an event on 13th March where a panel of experts will look at and try to answer the question:

The health and social impacts of the culture of working too hard: how we can better balance our longevity with our longer careers, and is there a better way?

Onebright’s Director of Clinical Services and Senior CBT Therapist Tanya Woolf shares her views.

The UK is known to be an environment where the culture is to work excessive hours. We see it in health settings, legal ones and financial ones to name but a few. If you ask people why they work such long hours, they will cite excessive, competing and/or unrealistic deadlines, too little resource (mainly meaning too few members of staff) and the drive for greater profitability or to manage reduced/cut budgets.

While there is undoubtedly a degree of accuracy in some of these perceptions sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. One of the aspects of this we see frequently in our CBT therapy sessions are clients who have perfectionistic beliefs about their performance and work. For people who think this way “good enough” is not an option, even when clients or managers are entirely happy with it.

Even for those of us not driven by perfectionism, our tendency to focus on things that don’t matter much or to procrastinate, can be part of the problem.

But what of the genuine external pressures? Managers and/or clients may be bullying people into working excessively or just pressurising them to do so.

Get these aspects together and you have a “perfect storm” of staff driven to work excessively due to their own internal beliefs and organisations that drive staff excessively due to one or more of a combination of bullying management, excessive focus on profits/cuts or their own fears of clients and losing their business.

Based in the City of London, we see many people presenting with stress, anxiety and depression as a result of these sorts of internal and external pressures. In my own clinical caseload over the years, I have seen a raft of entrepreneurs, lawyers, financial analysts and investment managers who were working 60-80 hour or more weeks routinely, week in, week out.

And what does all this work result in?

  1. Poor health outcomes for the people doing this work – physically and mentally
  2. Poor performance due to sick leave and presenteeism – showing up for work but performing at a poor level or barely at all
  3. Poor outcomes to the work

There have been many studies over recent decades of the impact of excessive work on people’s performance. They show consistently that performance drops off a cliff once a person has worked in the region of 8-10 hours. Fatigue means we slow down, we make more mistakes, our concentration goes so we have to keep checking our work and we end up taking 2 hours to do something that should only take 30 minutes.

The key to improving our health and our work performance is not working to excess and focusing on tasks that matter most – scheduling and prioritising. Among my clients described above, many have reduced their working week using CBT by as much as 15-25 hours. They have been amazed to discover that, contrary to their expectations, this improved their productivity as well as performance. The next step is for organisations to instil cultures and practice to reflect that approach. We don’t necessarily need to reduce to 4 days a week but certainly reducing to 35-45 hours per week should improve staff health and wellbeing, productivity and performance. This will ironically likely increase organisation profitability due to better performance and productivity among staff.

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