18th October 2019

A recent statement on the website of the Institute of Directors has provided a relevant discussion point on Labour’s proposal for a reduced working week: Namely, that without raising productivity, a shorter working week will not automatically make the economy better.

This is an interesting view because Andrew Barnes, who wrote the white paper on the 4-day week, argues that having an extra day off will, in fact, lead us to a more sustainable and productive future. So, who is right?

The Problem With Measuring Productivity

Putting a measure on productivity is a problem that LORIC actually faced in its work with various beneficiaries in the last two years. Our experience in doing Social Return on Investment evaluations required us to make assumptions about workload distributions in SMEs, as well as having to take into account various confounding factors. We took the broad view that in a small team, everybody has an equal part to play in the annual profits, so one person’s absence (or redundancy) would be felt strongly across the whole company.

Obviously, such a view is not always possible in a big company, where different teams are responsible for different outputs, and there are measures in place to balance out workloads. A more scientific approach would require the monitoring of a lot of different markers of health, engagement, and work outputs over a long period of time… unfortunately, this would also require employees to share a lot of their personal information with their employer, which is problematic from an ethical viewpoint.

Interestingly, studies that focus on productivity measure a lot of things that do not fall into the employee’s job descriptions – such as taking personal calls or smoke breaks – but do not clarify what they mean by what they mean by actual productivity, or what that means for different employees. One person’s daily outputs could be twenty emails to clients, while another person’s daily output could be one contract bid. Both are valuable to the company, but you wouldn’t be comparing them directly.

The Office of National Statistics defines productivity as measuring “output per hour, output per job and output per worker for the whole economy and a range of industries; productivity in the public sector; and international comparisons of productivity across the G7 nations.” That’s a great measure for the macro-economic sphere, but when you try to drill down to the individual level, you start to find problems because, once again, it is impossible to tell whether someone is doing well without comparing them to someone else against their markers. And in order to do so fairly, you need to either make all markers equal, or to find exactly the same people who do the exact same job.

Confounding Factors

In science, researchers spend a lot of time designing experiments. That is to ensure the rigour of the findings, but also to make sure the most obvious confounding factors are accounted for.As seen from the previous section, measuring productivity is hard without resorting to comparing “apples to oranges”. But even if you were to find two people doing exactly the same job, to measure their productivity effectively, you must also ensure that they are equal in every other sense of the word too. In practical terms, that means accounting for the confounding factors such as:

  • Levels of experience
  • Physical fitness for the job
  • Short-term illness
  • Long-term illness
  • Gender (and the likelihood of unconscious bias impacting the outputs)
  • Pre-existing knowledge
  • How long it has been since those people were on holiday
  • Whether one or both of these people have dependents that they act as a primary caregiver for

All of these factors could have an impact on the number of outputs per hour that these people in our hypothetical experiment could do. As such, in order to correctly measure their performances, a researcher would have to track them across a long period of time and to find ways to account for all of these factors correctly.

Self-Reporting Has Its Flaws

The white paper on the 4-hour work week cites a study where a number of employees were asked how they felt about their productivity across the work week. While the emerging statistics appear shocking – 79% said no – the issue is that we don’t know when those people were asked, and whether those self-reported feelings of productivity were tested against any hard data.What that means in practice is that you get an incomplete picture of the impact of an employee on the company. The whole study cited relied on self-perceived productivity (aka asking employees to be brutally honest about their perceived distractions) – which is valuable from a psychology standpoint, but it does not give sufficient information about the practical steps a company can take to support its employees. There is nothing mentioned about measuring the quantity and quality of the outputs of those employees in the 2 hours and 53 minutes they perceived themselves as being productive. It can well be argued that the time spent preparing and consuming food at work is worthwhile because the employees performed better on a full stomach. Human beings are not always an accurate judge of their own worth, which is why having line managers, targets, and unified markers of success is valuable.So far, the data does not appear sympathetic to the proponents of the 4-hour week. However, there are other potential benefits beyond raw productivity, which the white paper demonstrates.

Presenteeism, Absenteeism, and the Impact of Stress on Family Carers

Studies on employee well-being show that, while distractions at work are a problem, productivity takes a far bigger hit when someone shows up to work sick, tired, depressed, or worried about a loved one. Some researchers estimate that people show up to work ill approximately 13 days per year, on top of the sick leave they do take. This estimate, presumably, is only of the days when an employee comes to work with a serious illness, and does not take into account chronic conditions such as anxiety, arthritis, back pain, or PMDD.

It also, presumably, does not factor for the physical and mental health needs of family carers, who may present with all the issues of a regular employee, as well as ones that are unique to them. Family carers, it is worth noting, are doubly likely to present at work sick, because they are more likely to use up vacation time and sick leave to look after their dependents.

In all these situations, a 4-hour week can be seen as a good thing, even if it is just to formalise what is already happening. The argument can also be made that employees would have an incentive to work better and rest properly when they do take time off, which would enable them to work better. This goes back to the productivity measurement problem – we assume that all employees now work at full capacity and that cutting a day would cut the outputs. But if we accept the presenteeism argument, we are acknowledging the messy reality of human existence, which is that not everyone can be at 100% all the time – and that is fine.

Is Productivity Good for the Environment?

The least mentioned argument in favor of the 4-day week is that it would be better for the environment – both because it would dis-incentivise us to drive and cut business’ carbon footprint, and because it would lead to us making less stuff. The current assumption about productivity is that more is better – but looking back to 1984’s “butter mountains” quickly demonstrates the weakness of that argument. Back then, there was a problem because the supply of dairy products exceeded demand by a large margin, causing wastage on an unprecedented scale. In the last 30 years, globalisation has widened the market, but even in a world of free trade and no quotas, we are likely to face the same problem as the farmers did in the 80s:

There is only so much that we can physically consume.

What is the verdict then?

Despite our best efforts to shed light on this question, the fact of the matter is that there needs to be more hard data, specifically on the mechanisms of implementation, before we are able to say that a 4-day week is indeed the way to a more sustainable, healthy, and prosperous future. What we can say, however, from having examined the data that is being collected, is that a lot of soft factors (air quality, work-life balance, the ability to care for your loved ones without worry about your employment) tend to get overlooked in favor of raw productivity – which, as we hope we have demonstrated, is not a straightforward enough measure to be used alone.

Whether you are for or against the 4-day week, it is clear that the debate is making us question the ways in which we work and if they are indeed as effective as they can be. At the end of the day, we all have to decide whether we live to work, or work to live.