With the May Day bank holiday celebrated this Monday, many of us will be enjoying a four-day week this week – preceded by a three day weekend. For me, a bank holiday weekend always feels like a relief – for the first time in weeks or sometimes months, I feel like I’ve just about got the time to do all the things I need and want to do in my time off: seeing friends, doing housework, and actually resting. And a four day week feels like one that isn’t a slog to get to the end of, but enough time for me to get stuck into the work I need to do and stay motivated for the duration.
It’s for all these reasons – and many more – that the movement for a standard four-day working week has caught fire recently. The biggest pilot scheme of a four-day week is about to begin, with more than 3,000 workers at over 60 companies across Britain set the way of working from June until December. Many companies have already implemented the four-day week as a standard part of their working practises, finding that it improves wellbeing, motivation and productivity.
To sceptics, the four-day week might sound like a nice-to-have. But it’s much more than that. According to the TUC, “workers in the UK currently work the longest hours in Europe, take the shortest lunch breaks and enjoy the fewest public holidays.” As a result, mental health and wellbeing suffers, parents struggle with childcare costs, and employers pay the price too in sick days and reduced productivity as their employees suffer from burnout.
It’s clear that our current model of work simply isn’t working. But it can be incredibly difficult to imagine alternatives – for many, the five day week and two day weekend is simply the way it is. But the holiday we celebrated on Monday – May Day, also known as International Workers Day – reminds us that the employment rights we have today were hard fought for, and if we continue that struggle we can improve the lot of workers further.
The two–day weekend we now think of as set in stone wasn’t established until the 1930s. In 1929, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America union was the first to successfully demand a five day working week, after a variety of piecemeal trade union campaigns fought for reductions to the working week. The eight-hour day, which, many of us take for granted, was similarly won by unions – under the famous slogan “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.”
To me, that slogan rings with hope today. Dividing our time more equally between work and non-work doesn’t just give us more time to rest – it increases the wonderful possibilities of time for “what we will.” For some, that will be seeing friends and loved ones. For others, it will be study, or art, or other forms of creativity. For some, it will be spending time with their children. Not least, for many, it will open up time to get involved in their communities, in activism, and in politics – allowing people the breathing space not just to make a living, but to create the world they would like to see.
The world of work is changing – and the four-day week isn’t the only shift we need to see in response. Exploitative gig economy contracts are eroding workers’ rights, while almost all workers are seeing a squeeze in their living standards as real wages fail to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living. We need to raise the minimum wage to an actual living wage – £15 an hour – and tighten up the law so that employers can’t exploit loopholes in order to underpay their staff. We need to repair the social security safety net that has been ripped to shreds by the Tories, so that people have the stability to find work that meets their needs and suits their skillset. And above all, we need to reset our relationship to work – understanding that in the 21st century, work no longer needs to dominate our lives – and demand more time for what we will.