The Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory made history in 2021 by launching Australia’s first inquiry into the possibility of a shorter working week. The Assembly’s Standing Committee on Economy and Gender and Economic Equality released its first discussion paper, ‘Future of the Working Week’ in June last year.
The paper seeks to define the concept of the working week and its history, looks at the distinction between work compression and work reduction, and considers the evidence for work time reduction. It also considers what transitional and regulatory considerations would be required to make the change a reality.
Promisingly, the Barr Government’s submission to its own inquiry reflected positively on the possibility of change: “A four-day working week gives time back to people, which can reduce work-induced stress and related consequences, potentially impacting the societal rising cases of anxiety and depression, loss of sleep, poor dietary and exercise habits as well as child health, wellbeing, and behaviour.” The submission also acknowledges the results of the 2021 ACTPS Staff Survey, which found that a third of all respondents were experiencing serious levels of work-related stress.
Critics of the idea of a shorter week argue it would be unaffordable, or difficult to implement. Yet one of the strongest arguments in favour of such a change comes from private-sector or government-initiated reviews which indicate the change is actually better value for money. There are also major potential health benefits from getting more workers out of the office, as well as reducing the spending burden of the regular work commute.
The move to a shorter working week first captured the public imagination in 2015, when Iceland launched a four-year trial for public sector and city council workers in Reykjavik. The trial found that a shorter work week, without a reduction in pay, saw no loss in productivity. Since then, 86% of Iceland’s working population have moved to a shorter work week. Public sector and council trials quickly followed in Japan, Spain, Scotland, Ireland, the UAE, Belgium, Lithuania, and two U.S. states to date.
A 2018 report from the International Labour Organisation found, “[The belief] that long working hours result in high productivity … is actually a myth. In fact, longer hours of work are generally associated with lower unit labour productivity, while shorter hours of work are linked with higher productivity.”
NPR’s Ruth Tam and Clare Schneider have also dug into why the 40-hour work week (introduced in 1948) might have lost its relevance in a world where women’s labour force participation is now on par with men:
“Throughout the 20th century, when women entered the workplace, women got incomes of their own and lived lives outside of the domestic regime. But they also got the “second shift.” You work your job, you go home, you do the second shift of looking after the family and preparing the meal. So, if you’re talking about reducing working hours in general, a four-day workweek will first and foremost benefit those who work the longest hours in total. This is particularly relevant to women who both have their paid employment and their unpaid work at home.”
One submission to the ACT Government’s inquiry, by NSW mother Justina Remedi, shows clearly how a shorter working week could help to narrow the gender pay gap: “A four-day work week could reduce the time pressures experienced by Australians, diminish the work-hour inequality between men and women and the gender wage gap,” she says, adding: “…increasing the amount of time spent by men [contributing to unpaid work] … [would allow] increased uptake of full-time work [by women].”
While bringing stubborn or conservative employers around to the idea might seem implausible at first, it’s worth remembering that the dream of the eight-hour day was also dismissed until Melbourne stonemasons became the first workers in the world to win it. The reduction from 14-16 hour days to just 8 without a reduction in pay seemed revolutionary at the time but is taken for granted today.
If anything, what should surprise us most is that Governments and private sector employers have been some of the first to take the idea seriously without being forced to the table. As a result, we now have real-world results to suggest the potential benefits a shorter working week might deliver in Australia.
Australian behavioural science consultants Inventium found after a six-month trial that a four-day week resulted in productivity increases as high as 26%. To put this number in context, CPSU Assistant Secretary Tom Lynch points out in a recent column that productivity over the last twelve months grew 2.8%. What this suggests is that productivity increases from a shorter work week don’t just compensate for reduction in working hours, they might deliver above and beyond. Suddenly the move to a shorter working week sounds less like a concession to workers, and more like a quid pro quo.
The ACT’s inquiry has extended its deadline for submissions to 28 October 2022. It’s set to release its final report next year. What’s clear is that the Barr Government is already considering next steps. It’s not keeping its reasons secret, either: with low levels of unemployment nationwide, State and Territory Governments are struggling to recruit and retain much-needed skills. As the ACT Government’s own submission concedes, “[A shorter working week] would also be an attractive proposition for high-quality talent, including for many professional streams in the ACTPS, which are projected to be in high demand in the years to come, such as nurses, ICT, and teachers.”
With 25% of all Tasmanian public sector Speech Pathology roles sitting vacant and our Child Safety Service losing workers as quickly as it can hire them, our state is facing a recruitment and retention crisis in some of the services we rely on most. What remains to be seen is whether Tasmania will embrace the opportunity to become an employer of choice or sit back as we lose skilled workers to the mainland.
The fact is, if the Rockliff Government is unwilling to deliver competitive wages and entitlements to fix our state’s crisis of recruitment and retention, they’ll have to look at the other side of the coin. That means considering more attractive conditions, like a better work-life balance for workers. The only other option, expecting workers to simply roll over while their living standards decline amid rising cost of living, is a fantasy.
The movement for the eight-hour day should serve as a reminder that nothing was ever handed to working people on a silver platter. It’s up to us to stand up and fight for a better life, at work and at home.
Keen for more? More Readings:
- The CPSU’s 100 Claims for a Better State Service.
- Countries that have trialled or permanently introduced a shorter work week (via BuildRemote).
- ACT Legislative Assembly Discussion Paper: Future of the Working Week.
- “Is the Five Day Working Week on its Way Out?” (via Canberra Weekly)
- “As the COVID pandemic rolls on, there’s never been a better time for Australia to move to a four-day week” (via ABC News)
- “The 40-hour workweek isn’t working. Reducing it could help with productivity” (via NPR)