Sunday 15 September 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Secret to a happy work/life balance? The four-day week...'

‘The last eight hours of a working week are spent day dreaming of creamy pints. Bosses need to realise this’. Stock Image: PA
‘The last eight hours of a working week are spent day dreaming of creamy pints. Bosses need to realise this’. Stock Image: PA
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

Does your out-of-office reply currently say you have "limited access to email"? Yeah, right. We all know everyone has access to the internet on holiday because every hotel in the world gives you the wifi password as soon as you check in. Our bosses know this too.

This week Róisín Shortall called for a debate on "the idea of a four-day week becoming more widely available as in some Nordic countries" for parents.

We should. We all know how it feels to be driven to the point of burnout by long days, emails pinging 24/7 and bosses with unrealistic expectations, even as we toast on a Spanish beach.

We're all searching for how to balance our job with having a life.

But why only give a four-day week to working mothers? What about the rest of us left behind in the office with our unspoken but simmering sense of injustice? John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that by 2030 15-hour weeks would be the norm. But instead of setting us free, technology has only created the expectation that we are all in work mode for most of our waking hours.

It feels like we're being asked to make and take work everywhere. Lunchtime has disappeared. Meeting clients at lunch to butter them up over a fancy salad isn't a break and neither is stuffing down a sandwich at your desk, eyes glued to your inbox.

We rebel quietly. We phone in sick. The Matrix Recruitment Sick Day survey of 400-plus respondents found more than 49pc of people in Ireland take at least one bogus sick day from work each year, and more than one third (35pc) allow themselves three days leave for non-existent illnesses.

It's making us sick. There have been numerous studies that suggest how the number of hours we're working is causing us to be dangerously stressed, how the weekend messes up our sleep cycle and shortening our five-day working week to four days might make us more, not less, productive.

A two-year experiment in Sweden replaced nurses' eight-hour shifts with six-hour ones and kept their original salaries. Additional workers were hired to make up for the reduced coverage. It cost extra money, obviously, but the nurses (also obviously) reported greater well-being and took fewer sick days.

Perpetual Guardian, a trust fund management company in New Zealand, conducted a pilot four-day week scheme over eight weeks in 2018. Staff showed more commitment, stronger leadership skills, and there was no loss in productivity.

Earlier this year the ICE Group, a recruitment, training, and outsourced services company in the west of Ireland, announced plans to introduce a four-day working week for all of their employees, with five days' pay.

Most workplaces are very inflexible towards those of us with children or other care duties at home. And these caring responsibilities overwhelmingly fall to women who take a step back from our career - hello gender pay gap of 14pc.

Nobody does any work on Fridays anyway. How many of us spend the day hiding behind our computer screens? We try to look busy but really we're desk monkeys flicking between spreadsheets, Twitter and listicles, and not actually getting anything done - online shopping looks like work from a distance and in most roles social media can be explained away as work.

When we get into work on Friday, we've already decided we're going to take it handy. The last eight hours of our working week are spent clock-watching, daydreaming about creamy pints.

Bosses need to realise this. And working until 7pm every night doesn't signal commitment; it says this person has bad time management and probably no friends.

We should all have the option of working smarter, not longer. Employers need to rethink the hours lost to windbags at meetings and the number of hours spent Creep Diving online - if left uninterrupted most of us could easily finish our week's work in four days.

Irish Independent

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