Enjoy a sickie? There could be four-day weeks for life
Tomorrow might be the official national holiday but today will be a mass celebration of a great Australian institution as hundreds of thousands of workers call in sick.
Up to half a million workers are expected to chuck a sickie, voting themselves an extra day off. Even if you’re the conscientious type and decide to rock up to work today, it’s only a four-day week. Wouldn’t it be great if every week was like that?
Well for many workers it could be, with no loss of productivity plus the benefits of reduced energy consumption, lower carbon emissions, less congestion on the roads and more time for family and leisure. The key is extending the four working days to 10 hours, so all the work still gets done. And one US state has proved it can work.
In 2008 Utah moved 17,000 state employees to a four-day week, keeping their workload steady by extending the working days to 10 hours. There were savings to taxpayers from reduced energy consumption - not as high as hoped - but one aspect of it means it’s there to stay, and it’s this.
People love it.
Last month authorities produced a final report on the effects of the Working 4 Utah initiative. Over 80 per cent of staff said it was a good idea. Only a fifth of people in the entire state of Utah say it should be given the chop.
Under the 4/10 schedule, as it’s called, state employees report doing more exercise and spending less money on commuting. There are fewer cars on the roads, people are spending less money on petrol, and overtime is down by about 160,000 hours, or 30 per cent. That’s a significant saving for taxpayers.
People are using the state’s website for government transactions like license applications – saving money and shortening queues in service offices. Greenhouse emissions from state facilities are down an estimated 10,000 tonnes. And citizens are just as happy now with the services from their local government as they were before the 4/10 arrangement began.
It is a brilliantly simple idea and offers a real alternative to our cultural imprisonment by an early-20th-century psychology, essentially a factory-economy-based paranoia about being present in the workplace from morning to night, five days a week.
This manifests itself in workplaces in the corrosive culture of “presenteeism”, shorthand for the pressure for workers to be constantly on deck regardless of their workload or health. Its cost is estimated to run to tens of billions of dollars a year – sick or unhappy workers are less productive. It is also believed to be far more costly than its much more enjoyable opposite, absenteeism.
While it won’t work for every sector of the economy or all types of business it is the kind of simple change that offers savings to companies with no impact on productivity, as well as benefits to the environment and the potential to make Australia an extraordinarily attractive place to work.
It is one possible response to the Prime Minister’s call for Australia to find clever ways of enhancing productivity, which is going to be critical over the coming decades as the population gets older and the ranks of retirees swell.
Implicit in the Kevin Rudd’s call for the country to “work smarter” is an acknowledgement that “working harder” cannot give the economy the necessary productivity gains. Australians are some of the hardest workers in the world anyway – bludgers are pariahs and according to several surveys, we work some of the longest hours in the developed world.
And besides, this is not about slacking off or working less. It’s about working the same amount but in a way which, done right, can be more efficient than the current convention.
“It is important to understand that enhancing productivity is about giving workers and businesses the skills, infrastructure and positive business environment to work smarter,” Rudd said last week.
One plank of this is when complete the National Broadband Network will provide an infrastructure tool to greatly enhance the opportunities for effective, accountable teleworking. If people work from home more businesses can seek to save on the costs of running their buildings, and there’s also the benefit of easing road congestion and greenhouse emissions because fewer cars are on the road. Introducing a 4/10 work schedule could then be one part of creating the “positive business environment” Rudd talks about.
Imagine seeing it on a job advertisement. We offer a 4/10 schedule.
Translation: Work for us and have a lifetime of three-day weekends.
If there were two similar jobs but one offered a 4/10 schedule, which would you prefer to land?
A similar arrangement is already in practice for many people working in Australia’s economic engine room: the mining industry. A common arrangement for miners is to work, for example, 12-hour days days in a row before having an extended break of up to a week.
Of course moving to a four-day week won’t work for every business. But there are plenty of workplaces where you could imagine, say, the entire accounts department moving to a four-day week where staff just work slightly longer days.
And not everybody has to take the Friday off – you could split it, half the people off on Monday, the other half on Friday, meaning the business always has a quota of front-line service people on hand to deal with customers.
While it was introduced at government level in Utah, you could see private enterprise taking the lead on this in Australia, perhaps with encouragement through simple tax concessions for companies whose staff take their cars off the roads one day a week.
Interested to hear your thoughts on it. Could it work for you?
Follow me on Twitter: @colgo
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