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The Paradox of Productivity: Why We Should All Be Working a Four-Day Week

The longer and harder you work, the more you will achieve – right?

That’s certainly what many of us in this country are brought up to believe. What often gets referred to as ‘The Puritan work ethic’ is drilled into us from a very young age. If you want to get anywhere in life, get your head down and be prepared to graft.

Pretty sound, common sense advice, most people would agree, in a world where you get nothing for nothing. Yet it also leaves economists, politicians and business improvement gurus scratching their heads. Because although the UK prides itself as a nation of hard workers, when it comes to productivity we are distinctly average.

This is problematic because, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with business theory over the last 30 years will be well aware, efficiency is rated very highly as a measure of economic success. The aim of any business, or economy for that matter, should be to get the maximum possible output for the minimum possible input. That way, in monetary terms, you maximise profits. In terms of labour resources, you claw back the time to enjoy those profits.

Who benefits?

In terms of pure output, the UK does not have a problem – by GDP, we are the fifth biggest economy in the world, which for a country our size is remarkable. But the problem is, we are working harder than we should to achieve it.

Is that even a problem? The Puritan contingent would no doubt loudly shout nay, pointing out that the only reason plucky little Britain punches like an economic heavyweight is because we are prepared to pull our socks up and put in a shift. It is certainly a situation that employers like – a culture of long hours and unpaid overtime is great for keeping labour costs low and maximising profit margins.

But therein lies part of the paradox of productivity – who actually benefits from all of this hard work? We are one of the richest, most developed nations on the planet – yet we ranked 18th in the latest UN World Happiness Report. Which, given our credentials, is even more average than our productivity.

Finding the productivity sweet spot

The point is this – the longer and harder you work, the less and less productive you become when measured as an input-to-output ratio. Eventually, pushed to its extreme, if you kept on working and working your gross output would plummet to zero – you would collapse from exhaustion and not be able to do anything.

This correlation between time, work and productivity mirrors a similar trajectory with happiness – we all know the saying about too much work and not enough play. And falling happiness levels and increased mental stress play a direct role, alongside physical fatigue, in dragging productivity down.

If you were to get mathematical about this and draw it on a graph, you would be able to identify a sweet spot – a level of effort, an amount of time spent working, where levels of productivity (and happiness) were still at an optimum, before they started to decline.

The consensus from people who study these things is that the prevailing working culture in the UK is missing this sweet spot by a distance. One enlightened employer did just the above, plotted worker productivity versus time spent at work over a period of weeks, and found that productivity starts to flatline at 40 hours a week. By 60 hours, your productivity is in decline.

So the sweet spot would have to be somewhere below 40 hours a week – the average most of us in full-time work do as a minimum.

The case for four days

Many analysts and academics already believe they have identified the sweet spot – and let’s face it, based on the above approach, it shouldn’t be that hard to work out. The consensus is that a four-day working week would give the optimum balance of work and life, labour and rest, ensuring people could maintain peak productivity at all times.

The significant part of the argument for is not that it just helps ordinary workers remain happy, but it actually has considerable wider economic benefits. A better rested, less stressed workforce takes less days off sick, for example. Better health means less strain and expenditure on health services. Less days of missed work means more can get done, with less of the product spent on fixing the problems caused by excessive work. Output and profits would therefore increase.

There are many other similar suggested benefits. A happier, more alert workforce is a mentally sharper workforce, creativity and innovation would flourish, and more solutions to improve overall performance would be found. You would also get less churn in employees, as people are less inclined to seek a change as a resolution to feeling burnt out. Companies would save money on HR costs, and keep the best talent.

Put it another way – would you be prepared to put in a little extra effort at work for one day extra off a week? We all know what incentives can do to worker performance. Moving to a four-day week would be the ultimate perk to raise productivity.