In the past, the mention of a four day working week may have transported you back to the horrors of 1970s socialism or Edward Heath’s infamous three day week. But all such gloomy imagery has largely disappeared. In 2020, a four day week is firmly on the political agenda.
Last year, the think tank Autonomy suggested that a 32 hour week could actually improve productivity by giving the workforce extra time for their personal wellbeing at home without the need to reduce wages. Co-founder of the TPA Andrew Allum also shared this view, arguing that “with reduced hours, workers adjust to make better use of available time”. And with the introduction of automation and technology, businesses can reduce their hours without sacrificing their output - a win-win for Britain's workforce and industries.
Arguing for a reduced working week has never been easier. Covid has let us enjoy the perks of no commute, more family time and working comfortably in the privacy of home. Trade union chiefs and some Labour MPs have jumped on the idea, heralding it as the gold standard for the UK’s future labour market. On the face of it, it makes perfect sense to have that extra day at home because, after all, we've enjoyed it. But what would that look like in policy terms?
The private sector is miles ahead of the sluggish public sector in implementing the tech revolution. Not only is it improving our goods and services; it’s also allowing workers more time off. Businesses should be able to do what's best to maximise their profits - whether that be a four day or five day week. But in the public sector where the taxpayer is liable to pick up the bill, any change, radical or otherwise, must be heavily scrutinised.
That’s why it’s alarming that Autonomy is encouraging the government to use the public sector as a guinea-pig for a four day working week, with no loss of pay - costing the taxpayer a cool £9 billion.
According to the report, civil servants are overworked and ‘burnt out’, making them ‘suitable’ for a reduction in the working week. Although we sympathise with anyone struggling with a stressful work life, readers familiar with our research will note that public sector employees already have it easier than most.
Civil service managers are often overpaid and already receive extensive perks. They’re sheltered from the economic hardships the self-employed and millions of others face. Whitehall has spent over £7.6 million on canteen subsidies, cycling schemes and rollover holidays since 2014 - courtesy of the taxpayer. These extravagant extras are simply a fantasy for workers in the private sector. In one example, the Department for International Trade had 20,972 days rolled over, worth approximately £6,631,090. Each employee in the department rolled over 8 days on average in 2018. If the four day week was introduced, civil servants could be in line for an incredible extra 52 days off a year - almost three months! Added to their already generous holiday entitlements, public servants would be paid bucket loads to sit at home whilst white van drivers and small business owners continue to slog away.
It’s not just central government that’s splashing out. Local authorities up and down the country have also been quick to hand out expensive perks. Like Barnsley Council, who have recently been lambasted by residents after awarding their entire workforce with a £20 meal voucher, costing the taxpayer £64,000. It is simply unfair for the council to dish out big-budget bonuses when Barnsley residents are beginning to feel the brunt of the recession - worrying about their own jobs and homes.
To top it all off, public sector workers are on very plump pensions - something many people in the private sector could only dream of. According to TPA research in 2018, new workers in the public sector will retire on pensions nearly three times larger than those joining the private sector.
So it’s unacceptable in the current climate to let the public sector sit back and relax whilst the rest of the country works five days a week. The cost of such a scheme is hard to swallow when the nation is in such economic turmoil. If anything, this is the time when public servants should be pulling out all the stops to help the nation recover from the crisis.
While interesting in theory, this is not the time for a four day week in the public sector. We need fiscal prudence to steer us out of this economic mess, not more goodies for those already on the government gravy-train.