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Rethinking the 40-Hour Work Week

Right now, many of us are forced to lead lives that are economically precarious and environmentally and socially unsustainable. We work long hours to pay the bills, while not having enough time to volunteer on meaningful community projects or enjoy the company of friends and family. Care labour is distributed unfairly and unevenly, and the reproductive work necessary to keep our communities strong is overlooked and undervalued.

Many of us feel overworked, while more and more of us are unemployed or under-employed. 

This is a strange contradiction for our society to grapple with. Thousands of people are craving paid work opportunities, while many of those who are fortunate enough to have paid jobs are constantly stressed and dream of having more free time. It suggests there is something more fundamentally flawed with our dominant culture and way of life.

As Australia enters recession, we need to consider a broader range of options for reimagining work and how we structure our lives.

Many workplaces here on Brisbane’s inner-south side, both small and large, are shifting away from a 40-hour week. A 4-day ‘standard’ work week is becoming increasingly common. Depending on the field of work, this might mean going home earlier and only working from 9am to 3pm, 5 days per week. Or it could simply mean working from Monday to Thursday with a 3-day weekend. Or both!

Check out some recent TV news coverage of one local business that’s already made the switch.

As a local councillor, I am allocated two full-time ward office staff to assist me in my work. We’ve split these two full-time roles into multiple part-time roles (some staff work 2 or 3 days per week while others work 4 days per week). This means my staff are better rested and less stressed, and have more time for care labour, recreation, study and even volunteering on various community projects.

Many full-time employees find they prefer a slightly shorter work week, and experience a wide range of flow-on benefits (as long as they retain long-term job security). When large organisations shift away from a 5-day work week, this can also free up more job opportunities for unemployed residents.

If we have well-supported and affordable housing, healthcare and education systems that meet everyone’s basic needs, it becomes possible to imagine a society where working 5 days/week in paid roles is no longer necessary. This in turn would free up so much time among residents that a lot of other community projects would be more viable.

Not so long ago, it was considered normal for most people to work very long hours 6 days/week, with Sunday being the only day off. Strong advocacy, particularly from trade unions, led to the introduction of a standardised 8-hour work day and 5-day work week (at least in most wealthier nations). As we adapt to a new world beyond the shutdown, we need to go further and talk seriously about whether it’s time to shift towards a standardised 4-day work week.

But to get to that point, all of us who currently have paid work need to be more diligent and disciplined about finishing on time each day, and not working overtime for free.

Lately I’ve spoken to quite a few people who were working from home during the shutdown, and found that outside their traditional office workplace, they felt less pressure to work past 5pm. Of course, others (myself included) found that without a clear ‘home time’ we lapsed into working later into the evenings.

I think as the shutdown eases, and many of us return to office environments, workers need to insist on finishing for the day at the time their contracts say they should, and resist the pressure to work overtime on a regular basis. We won’t be able to initiate a shift towards a 4-day work week if we can’t even maintain the current 5-day work week.

Many Brisbane workplaces valorise and aspire towards a culture of working too long and too hard, which might serve to maximise profits for mega-wealthy rent-seekers, but isn’t necessarily in society’s broader long-term interests. So let’s start some in-depth conversations in our community and with our coworkers about workplace culture, workplace hours, and what would need to happen to shift our city towards a 4-day work week.

Is it better for everyone to have the same three days of the week off? Or should the working week be staggered to spread around transport impacts and other demands on infrastructure?

What kinds of government services and private services would still need to remain open and available at least 5 days per week, and what services could feasibly drop down to 4 days per week?

If big employers like Brisbane City Council were to shift towards a 4-day work week (with a 3-day weekend from Friday to Sunday), would this prompt other private workplaces to also make the shift?

What are the main barriers preventing smaller businesses from making this kind of shift?

There are lots of questions to think through, so please talk about them with your friends and family!

If you’re interested in further reading on this topic, this discussion paper is a good place to start.

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