Studies consistently show that people employed full-time would generally prefer to work less hours, meanwhile other studies have found that being totally unemployed is very bad for people’s mental health, so the question is, what is the ideal number of work for optimum physical and mental health? It turns out it is just eight hours a week!
That is the finding of a new journal article published in the journal of Social Science and Medicine. The new paper is called ‘A shorter working week for everyone: How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?’
The study found that when people moved from unemployment into paid work of eight hours a week, their risk of mental health problems reduced by an average of 30 per cent. It turns out that working eight hours a week is sufficient to gain the wellbeing benefits of full-time employment. And these benefits neither increase nor diminish if you work more. In fact, working too much is also harmful. A 2017 study at the Australian National University has found mental health tends to decline when people work more than 39 hours a week. After 48 hours, job performance begins to rapidly decrease and there are more signs of depression and anxiety, worse sleep quality and other long-term health risks.
It is time to abolish full-time work!
This means that it is definitely time to look at reducing the hours of full-time employees. The researchers argue that with the rise of robots and artificial intelligence, jobs will disappear so it makes more sense to share work hours, so everyone works a few hours. Having a minority of people working long hours and the majority of people under or unemployed would make for an unhealthy, unhappy society.
Co-author Senhu Wang, from the University of Cambridge, said: “The traditional model, in which everyone works around 40 hours a week, was never based on how much work was good for people.
“Our research suggests that micro-jobs provide the same psychological benefits as full-time jobs, however, the quality of work will always be crucial. Jobs where employees are disrespected or subject to insecure or zero-hour contracts do not provide the same benefits to wellbeing, nor are they likely to in the future.”
Professor John Buchanan from the University of Sydney Business School echoed these sentiments saying that the type of work was important, with other research suggesting “no job was better than a bad job”.
Dr Buchanan said Australia once led the world in reducing working hours, being one of the first places to get the eight-hour day in the 19th century and the 40-hour week in the 20th century.
“We used to be the Sweden of the world – Europeans came out here on study tours in the early and mid-20th century to see how it worked,” he said. “All that changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and now full-time workers [in Australia] have some of the highest hours of work in the world.”
Australia is in the bottom third of OECD countries when it comes to working long hours, with 13 per cent doing up to 50 hours or more a week in paid work. These long hours are bad for our health. A French study found that regularly working long days of ten hours or more increases our risk of having a stroke.
How many Australians work?
In Australia, 62.5 per cent of the population is working, whether full time or part time, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures for May 2019. There are 695,000 people looking for work, and nearly seven million people who are not in the workforce, including full-time students, stay-at-home parents and retirees.
Would it be better if most people worked a few hours, rather than a few people working exceptionally long hours? What is the right ‘dose of work’?
“We have effective dosage guides for everything from Vitamin C to hours of sleep in order to help us feel better, but this is the first time the question has been asked of paid work,” said study co-author Brendan Burchell, a sociologist from Cambridge University who led another project called the Employment Dosage research project.
“We know unemployment is often detrimental to people's well-being. We now have some idea of just how much paid work is needed to get the psychosocial benefits of employment – and it's not that much at all.”
The Oxford/Salford research did not look at how a reduced pay packet would impact people, rather it just looked at how we feel about having more leisure time and less working hours.
The robots are coming
Dr Daiga Kamerade, lead author and sociology/criminology lecturer at the University of Salford, said in the future when robots have taken over many jobs, working hours should be distributed among the population, so that people still get the mental health benefits of a job and pay is also fairly distributed.
“In the next few decades we could see artificial intelligence, big data and robotics replace much of the paid work currently done by humans,” Dr Kamerade said. “Our findings are an important step in thinking what the minimum amount of paid work people might need in a future with little work to go around.”
Working less means we work better
But apart from the robots, there are other important health reasons for reducing the number of house we work in a week. Changing to a four-day or even shorter working week could make us happier and more productive.
A New Zealand study showed that a four-day week on the same pay increases happiness and the workers were just as productive as five-day-a-week employees. Other studies show that many employees believe their jobs have no value and they are effectively marking time, so it would be better if they spent less time at work.
A 2017 British study found the average time people actually spend working is two hours and 53 minutes each day, with the rest of their time going to social media, news websites, non-work chats with co-workers, taking meal and drink breaks, going out for a smoke, and searching for new jobs. The technical term for this stems from the 1950s Parkinson’s Law which found that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
The Oxford/Salford study found that the working week could be shortened considerably “without a detrimental effect on the workers’ mental health and wellbeing”. They said a future with limited work could include five-day weekends, working just a couple of hours a day, or even having two months off for every month at work.
However, they point out that reduction of hours would need to be for everyone, to avoid increasing socioeconomic inequalities.
Share the mental health benefits of work The research comes in the context of a global rise in automation that could lead to shorter hours for all and a redistribution of work. To summarise, this new research found that the most ‘effective dose’ of work is only about one day a week.
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