THE BLOG

Why a Universal Four Day Week Shouldn't Be Such a Tough Pill for Companies to Swallow

07/07/2014 14:41 BST | Updated 03/09/2014 10:59 BST

With half of us working too much and half of us too little, a mandatory four day week, prescribed this week by leading doctor Professor John Ashton, may be the spoonful of sugar the nation needs to swallow to regain a semblance of economic- and mental- health.

Downward wage pressure amid rising inflation and simple market forces applied by a growing population and increasing technology means those that have jobs must demonstrate more "value for money" than ever. For many companies, this means staff putting in more hours in the office, allowing them to cutback headcount even further.

The effect on the nation has been stark, with a national divide occurring and not just between the North and the South, or rather London and the rest of the UK. Increasingly, over or under-employment is leading to health- impacting stress, with time poverty, or worse, actual poverty forcing us to make life limiting compromises which affect well-being for the worse. In a world where we either work too much or too little, there must be a happier medium to strike.

This week's announcement, that the right to ask for flexible working under law for everyone who has been in their role for 26 weeks or more - not just parents and carers as previously - seeks to address the growing presenteeism that many companies seem, by capitalism's competitive nature, to encourage.

But the fact is, being visible is still, in the minds of many, akin to being useful, and to many employers, looking busy is somehow preferable to simply being efficient.

In my previous employment as a digital copywriter, much of my work could be achieved solo, and I was granted, as the mother of two, the right to work from home one day a week. This enabled me to touch base with my children's school, an aim unachievable during ordinary working hours that seemed to stretch, unrestrained by any work time directive - which I was asked to waive, in any case, as part of my induction process - from pre-8.30 till gone six. In the youth orientated ad agency where I worked, I was in the strict minority of parents - the only one in the office with school age children.

A day from home meant I could ease perennial work home tension that inevitably results in health impacting stress: I could drop the kids off and pick them up from school once a week, pass a minute with a teacher and ensure their never ending lost property could sometimes be recovered.

It also meant I had to shove the TV on as soon as we returned home so I could finish my work - often not till past the kids' bedtime to make up the mid-afternoon half hour - but then the child minders are paid to be more entertaining on the other four days of the week, so I tried not to slay myself with any more guilt than necessary.

At the very least, it gave me a modicum of flexibility; a brief respite from my dangerous daily commute cycling in to the centre of London (my nearest tube, the central line at Bethnal Green is inhumane at during rush hour), and the chance to get a few loads of laundry done as I worked.

But my day from home was granted uneasily, although I could access my desktop from home. I often achieved much more in my home work day, than having scurried to the office after school drop off without time to eat my breakfast. But twice my privileges were revoked abruptly for minor, technological reasons by inexperienced young managers who saw being present as akin to productivity.

I fought to get them reinstated but in so doing, I became side-lined in the office. Eventually I was made redundant, not because I worked from home, but perhaps stemming, in part, because I'd had the gall, at a time when being employed at all is considered by a generation, a kind of privilege, to ask.

In truth, I was strung out and frazzled from squeezing, juggling, making do and ends meet, cutting corners - mostly at home and still, despite giving it all, never quite seeming to do enough. I aired frustrations amid overworked, underpaid colleagues too freely. We were all under the cloche, but I had a job to do when I got home, rather than drowning my sorrows, like the rest of my young team, down the pub.

When I was finally put to the sword, just two weeks shy of meeting the two-year watershed when employees gain some protection in law from unfair dismissal, I needed two weeks just to recover from the whole ordeal.

Mental health at an all time low, I took time to potter my world-wearied self gingerly around the house, carrying out normal, everyday tasks: stiffly walking the dog; taking the kids to school; rewiring my detail oriented copy editor's brain to remember how to poach eggs and make soup for their tea. My days were punctuated by the need to rest. I slept and ate and sunbathed, when it designed to come out: my body fizzing and healing, my brain gradually de-frazzling and anti-depressing.

After the stress of "having it all" - by which I mean the unremitting grind of climbing the career ladder and trying to see at least a few of my children's milestones while simultaneously keeping our heads above water - rather than swanning around enriched by my empowering life affirming "choices" - the benefits of living in more balanced way became all too apparent.

Under less stress, my mental and physical health improved. I began to take time to look after myself - and my children - better. I became nicer, with time to catch up with friends and family; more outward looking as I stopped focusing on my own problems and difficulties. In short, I was a better human being. I finally learned at the age of 34, to appreciate time for solitude and reflection disallowed by the routine of full time work.

But necessity forced me to climb straight back on the horse. I wanted to freelance, but with my husband's banking job still unstable after four years of crisis management, the opportunity that trotted by could not be looked in the mouth. By providential hook and financial crook, I was back in full time work within a month.

But with the additional complication of a cross-London tube commute, I was terrified that I would soon end up in the same mess as before - financially more stable but mentally all over the place.

However, a more balanced approach to work has afforded me the luxury of a 9.30 start, only occasionally offset by the odd late departure. A cut price canteen offers nutritious food to keep us going, a Friday afternoon drinks trolley and mid afternoon snacks are all designed to make life a little easier.

And I am going gentle on myself, rather than trying to prove I'm superhuman: stopping for lunch, heading off early for kids'appointments if need be rather than trying to shoehorn everything into the weekends to the detriment of my, and my family's long term sanity.

But even given a better work setup, the lure of the four day week may yet prove too tempting. My other career, the one that gives me pleasure if little actual income - that as a writer - has fallen off the wagon since going back to work as I try to balance health, wealth and family well-being with making a good (enough) impression.

Time will tell whether I can afford the necessary slice of salary that would give me the freedom and time to do everything better. But going "part-time' again may just be asking for trouble in an industry where long hours and commitment are all part of the job.

The problem needs to be solved from above. A universal four day week should be introduced to prevent those who take up the option of flexible work from being viewed as simply "slackers and mums" with all the accompanying career implications.

There's always the danger workers will just end up trying to squeeze five days of work into four. But a national four day week would certainly improve efficiency and help to solve the problem of presenteeism, which is rife in the private sector.

It should also positive impact the economy with more balanced work distribution and increased leisure time to fuel growth, with all the attendant effects on national mental and physical health. It could even ease the pressure on the NHS as we all have more time to look after ourselves.

But in the meantime, the higher personal well-being and happy families is pushed up the national agenda the better. As all business leaders should note, a happier, more harmonious society is a more productive one, now and as an investment in the future.