The problem of evidence

Stands to reason, people have better ideas and get more done when fresh than when they have been working for many hours or days on end, right? Therefore, people who work shorter weeks will be more productive. This seems so self-evident that it shouldn’t need proof. But the idea that a shorter week might be better for everyone is still a bit out-there, so therefore we need evidence for everything we say. (Even though the vast majority of actual policy is nothing to do with evidence. But that’s another story).

So a new Australian study, featured today in the Daily Telegraph, is interesting. The researchers ran some standard cognitive tests (remembering numbers backwards, that kind of thing) on a bunch of women and men who were over 40 years old, and found that those who worked 25 hours a week did the best. Test attainment dropped off a little for the 40-hour-weekers and even more for those who worked 55 hours a week. All did better than people who didn’t work at all. There was no gender difference.

This is interesting, because it coincides with common sense, and suggests that a shorter working week might be more productive because people get slower if they work longer hours…

But wait! There is a huge problem with the study. Its narrative suggests that the pattern is seen only in people over 40, and indeed this is who was tested. But the researchers didn’t test anyone under 40! It is entirely possible – nay likely – that exactly the same pattern of cognitive attainment is seen in people of all ages who work different numbers of weekly hours. It might have nothing to do with age at all.

Secondly, while common sense suggests that tiredness from long hours might reduce cognitive ability, we can’t assume this from the study, as we don’t know what caused what. Perhaps people who work more slowly (and do less well in cognitive tests) work longer hours to get the work done? Or perhaps the really smart people (who do best in cognitive tests) are smart enough to get themselves 25 hour a week jobs? Correlation is not causation, and from this study alone, we just don’t know.

I believe that a shorter working week, coupled with a living wage and affordable housing, would be better for everyone of all ages. This study shows that people who work long hours do worse in cognitive tests. But it has a long way to go before proving that older people are slower than younger ones at work, despite its claimed concluding sentence that “in middle and older age, working part time could be effective in maintaining cognitive ability”. I’m sticking with the court of common sense, until studies come along which do actually show what they claim to.

Britain isn’t working?

I was confronted this morning with the news that Jeremy Hunt thinks Britain needs to work harder. Apparently, the point of the tax credit cuts is to send an ‘important cultural signal’ about hard work. He said, “Are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard? And that is about creating a culture where work is at the heart of our success.”

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about the hard work women and men do to cook, clean and care for their families. Nor the hard work of school governors, charity shop till-staff and volunteers who run lunch clubs for older people who might otherwise never get out. No, I think he was implying that people who get paid wages so low that they can’t keep a roof over their families’ heads don’t work hard enough.

Jeremy Hunt needs to realise a few things:

  • The minimum wage is too low, and it will still be too low when it is slightly increased later this year. As Len McCluskey said, Hunt’s remarks are insulting to the millions of people “juggling two or three jobs to put food on the table”, especially when you remember that hunt is the richest member of the Cabinet.
  • The whole of life involves hard work, not just the economic employment bit, and if his party wants the community spirit, family ties and gender equality it sometimes seems so keen on, a lot of people will need to work to make it happen, and they can’t do that if they have exhausted all their energy working in the workplace.
  • Working longer hours usually means less, not more, productivity. Nobody does their best, fastest work or has their best ideas when they are exhausted. Long hours of intensive work will reduce, not increase, productivity.
  • As Health Secretary, he might also have an eye to the poor health – from stroke to depression – caused by overwork.

This speech, and the whole ‘strivers and shirkers’ line we have heard so much, is a cynical way to pit the insecure against each other, demonise vulnerable people and blame them for situations they didn’t want to be in. Ask Redcar.

How much more constructive it would be to make speeches to unite not divide celebrating the unpaid and paid hard work of Britain, and make policy to regulate for a truly living wage, and support shorter working hours for those who want them.

Working hours are the latest face of corporate responsibility…

While I was on holiday, Uniqlo in Japan announced a new option for employees to work a four day week. Yet another company, in another country, taking action to implement the new normal!

Professor Peter Fleming of City University refers to the movement to challenge the “deeply entrenched assumption that work can save us” as “the latest movement in corporate social responsibility”.

Hurrah to that!

Hanging out with the kids

flower boat pic

I was a rubbish and depressed full time mum for a short time: I have been much more fun for my kids to be around since I worked as well as parenting. But going out to work during the long school summer holidays has always felt uneasy. It feels somehow wrong to dive out of the door while your offspring are just about donning their dressing gowns. It feels especially important to spend some time with them now they are 12 and 10. I am all too aware that the days that hanging out with mum is desirable are numbered.

Which is one of the reasons I am so lucky to job share. On Tuesday, the first full day of summer holidays, after a bit of discussion with the ten year old boy about the relative merits of a day on Minecraft and a wholesome outing, my kids and I went on a long bike ride in bits of our local area we had hardly been to before.

We found a lovely café in a little rec that must have opened since I last went there ten years ago. (Then, it was a patch of scrubland with no seats on the swings. There seemed no reason to return. Public investment, of the kind we are all soon going to miss, has transformed it. But that’s a different blog). We cycled past the houseboats on the River Lea and mused about what it would be like to live on one: beautifully cosy but perhaps a bit hot, they thought. I thought untidy too, but they weren’t bothered about that. Further into Tottenham Marshes, we watched a family of baby coots, and found a barge that was entirely a garden. Then to cut back to a familiar local park we took a detour via a Victoria Line tube depot (who knew that was there?), and then found the secret path under the railway and cycled back onto familiar ground, to the confusion of the kids (“Eh? How come we are HERE?”)

For the price of three ice creams, it was a cool way to spend a beautiful summer’s day.

On Wednesday, the next day, I went to work. I worked intensely – I am only working two days a week for the next few weeks, and I will have to get my head down to make those days count. But I will come to it fresh and relaxed so problems will be interesting challenges rather than insurmountable enemies, and the days will pass in a flash because I am packing so much into them. And then I will have another day with the kids. Perhaps we will go swimming next time. Or venture into London town. Or just stay home and play some games.

I am very lucky that I get to do this, and have the best of both parenting and work. It shouldn’t be a lucky thing. It should be an option for everyone who wants it.

Ramadan and the five-hour day

It’s Ramadan this month, and Muslims all over the world are fasting from sunrise to sunset. It’s a challenge at any time of year. But with long days and record temperatures, I find myself in awe of Muslim friends and colleagues, stoically getting on with their duties right through the working day.

In many Muslim countries, workplaces adopt a different rhythm during Ramadan. In Time On Our Side: Why we all need a shorter working week, Anna Coote quotes from a Kuwaiti man, Qaiss Dashti, who works for the UN.

“In the month of Ramadan in the Middle East all companies reduce the working hours from eight hours to five hours for 30 days, and surprisingly we all finish our work like it’s an eight hour work day. We even discuss this between ourselves as employees: how a shorter day is much better and makes us more positive and willing to use the rest of the time for sports or family, and I guess it reflects back on our performance at work”.

Qaiss’s story is a great example of Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. With a shorter working day, how many more of us would get our work done, and still have those precious extra hours to walk out into the sunshine in time for a kickabout, or a chat with a friend?

More research needs to be done to establish the relationship between productivity and working hours – it’s likely that it varies between different jobs. When Ramadan finishes, workers in Kuwait, UAE and other Muslim countries will go back to finishing work at five pm rather than two. For the rest of us, there’s a tantalising glimpse of how ‘normal’ it can be for a whole workforce to adopt shorter working hours, without the sky falling in.

A shorter working week: a change in the prevailing wisdom

What do we want? A shorter working week! When do we want it? Erm… when we are ready for it!

My more rigorous friends tell me I am a dreamer. It’s all very well telling your nice stories about going home early on Friday and Mayday and the moon, they say, but what do you actually want? What policy changes will get us to this Utopia of which you speak? Have you thought about that?

Well, I have! And the possibilities are many. One option is a statutory limit on working hours – as was done in the middle of the last century to create a no-arguments weekend, and much more recently in France when weekly hours were for a time capped by law at 35. More likely in this country is a more gradual voluntary change, backed by supportive policy. So we would campaign for a stronger legal obligation on employers to take requests for reduced working hours or flexible working seriously. This campaign would need, of course, to work closely alongside a push to make a living wage a reality.

However, there is a reason why I don’t talk about this much. I don’t think it’s the right time yet. Timing is everything in campaigning.

Take this election campaign. All the main parties have proposed an extension to free childcare for young children, to their credit. But that is as far as it goes. Across the spectrum, the idea of the shorter working week, despite its obvious appeal, has not been mentioned.

It’s not it is never mentioned at all. On the contrary, there are press articles specifically calling for a four day week, from Spectator to New Statesman, and the mainstream press regularly features calls from the great and the good for shorter working hours, news pieces on areas such as the link between long hours and poor health, and in-depth features on companies experimenting with innovative working hours arrangements.

So there are lots and lots of nuggets, just waiting to be joined up by a campaign – but the idea is not yet mainstream. And campaigning for specific policy change before it is in that mainstream would be too easily dismissed. Rather, the first job of a campaign for shorter working hours is to get the idea from the margins to the mainstream, discussed around pub tables and water coolers, up and down the land and also in Westminster and on Newsnight. And to do that, there needs to be a networked community of people who are already working a shorter week, or aiming to, who know the benefits and want to spread them. (If you are one of those people, sign up to this blog for exciting news over the coming months.)

Once that is done, the time will be right to campaign for the policy change to make it happen. By the 2020 election, the manifestos of all the parties will feature a shorter working week, and we will be ready to chant as we march.

What do we want? A shorter working week! When do we want it? Now!

Mayday story

A Mayday story written by Gary Younge for the Guardian, h/t Lianna Etkind 

About 25 years ago [now a bit longer!], US oral historian  Studs Terkel was waiting for a number 146 bus alongside two well-groomed business types. “This was before the term yuppie was used,” he explains. “But that was what they were. He was in Brooks Brothers and Gucci shoes and carrying the Wall Street Journal under his arm. She was a looker. I mean stunning – Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus and carrying Vanity Fair.”

Terkel, who is 95, has long been a Chicago icon, every bit as accessible and integral to the cultural life of the Windy City as Susan Sontag was to New York. He had shared the bus stop with this couple for several mornings but they had always failed to acknowledge him. “It hurts my ego,” he quips. “But this morning the bus was late and I thought, this is my chance.” The rest of the story is his.

“I say, ‘Labour Day is coming up.’ Well, it was the wrong thing to say. He looks toward me with a look of such contempt it’s like Noel Coward has just spotted a bug on his collar. He says, ‘We despise unions.’ I thought, oooooh. The bus is still late. I’ve got a winner here. Suddenly I’m the ancient mariner and I fix him with my glittering eye. ‘How many hours a day do you work?’ I ask. He says, ‘Eight.’ ‘How comes you don’t work 18 hours a day like your great-great-grandfather did? You know why? Because four guys got hanged in Chicago in 1886 fighting for the eight-hour day … For you.’

Solar year, lunar month, why the week?


Most of the ways we measure time are based on nature. The month is broadly based on lunar cycles, with a few days added (by Julius Caesar) to make 12 months fit snugly in a solar year – based, of course, on the time it takes the earth to orbit the sun. Before Caesar revamped it all, months were totally based on lunar cycles, so December crept gradually from winter to summer, which was presumably inconvenient.

But the seven day week? What’s that all about? In ancient times they divided lunar months up all sorts of ways instead. But the Babylonians started dividing the month into seven day chunks, as of course did the Jews.

Witold Rybezynski, in his fascinating book Waiting for the Weekend, points out that the ancient world was full of sevens – seven pillars of wisdom, seven names of God, seven wonders of the world – you name it. Seven was a magical number. There were also thought to be seven planets, and the days of the week were named after the known planets by the Romans: Saturn-day, Sunday, Moon-day, Mars-day (think of the French Mardi), Mercury-day (French Mercredi), Jupiter-day (Jeudi) and Venus-day (Vendredi). In English, we traded some of this for names of Anglo Saxon figures: for example Thor got Thursday. The only European language that retains a complete set of Roman planetary names is Welsh.

In China, though, the seven-day week arrived very much later – as a result of the 1911 revolution, and as part of a push to ‘modernise’.

According to the same book, the ancient concept of the weekend started with the Jewish Sabbath. Then other religions (Christianity, Islam) deliberately chose other days as their holy day to distinguish themselves. Hindus on the Indian sub continent also adopted a rest-day in each seven day time-chunk, probably around the 4th century. There has never been a human society that did not recognise the need for a regular day off, although some have tried to minimise them. One of these was revolutionary France.

After the revolution, the French revised the calendar completely, to break with the past and to decimalise (‘rationalise’) time. Year 1 was to be the proclamation of the Republic, 1792. They kept the year, and divided it into twelve thirty day months, with five days left over at the end for a festival. The seven day week was abandoned – instead months were divided into three ten-day periods, decades, with the tenth day being a holiday. It didn’t work though. Christians (the majority) continued to celebrate the Lords Day, and non-Christians had far less frequent days off. According to Rybezynski, “even if the Jacobins had survived, it is unlikely that the “decade” would have persisted”. It lacked the cultural roots and mystery of the planetary week. “The roots of the week lie deep, too deep to understand.”