Why working long hours is overrated

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According to Anna Coote, we suffer from the ‘coat on the back of the chair syndrome’. We think that just being in the office is a sign of commitment and success. In an interview we had with Anna Coote in the run-up to our Symposium: The Future of Work, she explains why she is a proponent of a shorter workweek and why working long hours is harmful to both ourselves and our society. 

What ideas on ‘success in work’ would you like to get rid of?
I would like to get rid of the idea that ‘success at work’ is measured by the hours you work – and that the longer you work, the more successful you are. There is no evidence that working longer hours improves the quality of your output. On the contrary, some studies have shown that people tend to achieve less or perform less satisfactorily after about six hours and decline further after 8 or 10 hours. People who work long hours tend to suffer from more stress and anxiety, tend to get sick more often and take more leave of absence than those who work shorter hours.  

But the idea persists that ‘presentism’ is a measure of high performance - sometimes called the ‘coat on the back of the chair syndrome’: as long as you are in the office, even if you are not actually working, being there is a sign of your commitment and success. Not so. This discriminates against workers who have caring and other responsibilities outside the workplace, who are mainly women. It contributes to a prevailing prejudice against ‘part-time’ workers, based on an assumption that part-timers are less committed and less capable, and therefore not suitable for promotion. 

What would happen if we don’t change our way of working?  
There will be more women and men ‘burning out’ from long-hours working; and there will be a widening gap between those who have jobs and those who don’t. If the volume of paid work is likely to shrink because of automation and the effects of globalisation, then it makes sense to distribute paid work more evenly across the population. 

What better definition of success can we come up with? 
Measures of success should include wellbeing at work, quality of output, capacity to learn and develop, and long-term contribution to social, environmental and economic sustainability.

Why is it so difficult for organisations to bring the 21-hour work week into practice? What are we scared of?
The idea is to reduce working hours gradually, moving to a 4-day week or its equivalent in hours (30), spread across the week/month/year in ways that suit both employee and employer. In the longer run, it may be possible to move on towards a 3-day or 21-hour week, but this is not the main goal – we have called for 21 hours mainly as a way of encouraging people to think radically about hours reduction. 

From the worker’s point of view, the main worry is likely to be loss of pay. This can be mitigated by introducing (gradually) higher hourly rates of pay and in some cases by reducing hours without loss of pay. Public services (such as free healthcare, education and childcare, and subsidised housing) can also provide a ‘virtual’ wage that meets people’s needs and offers a degree of security, regardless of how much they earn.

From the employer’s point of view, the prospect of managing a larger workforce of people on shorter hours may be daunting; they may worry about more complex schedules, skills gaps and covering the time needed for the business or service in question. These are legitimate concerns, but can be offset by training and experience, as well as by evidence that people who work shorter hours tend to be more productive hour for hour. 

How can an ambitious and energetic person ever settle for a 21-hour working week?
Ambition and energy can have more that focus. Anyway, as I have said, let’s start by aiming for a 4-day or 30-hour week. I know plenty of people who fit this description and they use their time to fulfil a wider range of ambitions – including education and training, creative activities, politics, volunteering and caring for children or elderly parents. They become more fulfilled and rounded individuals as a result.

Anna Coote is Principal Fellow at the New Economics Foundation in London. On the 9th of November she is one of the keynote speakers at our Business Symposium: The Future of Work.

Business Symposium: The Future of Work

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