Ever noticed the statue on the corner of Victoria and Russell Streets in Melbourne? You know, this one:
It has a shiny gold orb and three figure 8s on the top. If you’re anything like me you’ve stumbled past it many times on your way either to or from the John Curtin Hotel. It stands as a memorial to a labourers’ movement who, in 1856, successfully lobbied to reduce their work day to eight hours. This was the original work life balance – eight hours each for work, leisure and sleep per day. They argued that with their minds ‘unclogged by the action and influence of severe bodily work’, they could focus on ‘self respect, and respect for other, for law, order, and forms so essential to freedom, domestic virtues and good citizenship.’
We’re still using this work structure today but our minds are far from ‘unclogged’. The cost of living is too high. We’re afraid to lose our jobs. We feel the need to get ahead. All of this is pressuring us to put up with unreasonable expectations at work. The resulting stress can lead to a whole range of serious health issues including fatigue, anxiety, depression and insomnia that infringe on leisure and sleep times. It’s not like 1856 when you could just drop your chisel at quitting time, go to the pub and forget about work till morning. Our current lifestyle and work culture is trashing the ‘three 8’s’ model. It’s a relic of bygone days when each eight-hour block could be given an equal amount of attention and value.
To correct Australia’s work-life balance, some of us have floated around the idea of the shortened work week. Greens leader Richard Di Natale, discussing the idea back in March, asked us to question ‘the entrenched political consensus that a good life can only come from more work’ and reassess ‘the things we really value in life, like relationships and being with our loved ones, leisure, sport, volunteering, creativity and all the simple things that make us happy.’ It sounds a lot like the labourers’ argument I quoted earlier.
Could there be a revolution similar to theirs in the present day? Is it even possible for us to work less?
Let’s have a look at country where the shortened work week has already been trialed. Early this year, the Swedish government concluded a fascinating two-year long experiment. Full time employees from selected businesses had their shifts reduced to six hours while their salaries were kept the same as before. Most participating companies reported a dramatic increase in productivity, energy and well-being amongst its staff. Ultimately, the trial was abandoned due to the high cost of having to hire extra workers; but many believe that two years was not enough time to determine whether this deficit would eventually be balanced out across the economy by ‘happier’ workers claiming less health care benefits.
The results certainly seem promising. So could this model be adopted here? By everybody? Maybe one day. But for now I think there are more pressing issues at hand. Before we get all excited about the idea of working less we should be addressing the reasons why it’s come up in the first place. Yes, many people are miserable about their jobs; many people aren’t spending enough time on the things they love. But is that because they’re working 38 hours a week or because they’re working a lot more than that to make up for understaffing? Or because their co-workers are bullying them? Or because their boss expects them to put in unpaid overtime? I suspect that simply cutting people’s hours (regardless of whether or not their pay is compensated) won’t solve these problems. We need to address the systemic problems native to our current work structure in order to improve it from the ground up, rather than just assuming that a shorter working week is the concrete answer.