Imagine that you work for four days out of seven but get paid for five days of work. Now, what would you do on that free fifth day? Take up a new hobby, relax, volunteer?
Some groups are in fact lobbying companies and governments to reduce the “normal” week to four days instead of five days out of seven with no decrease in pay. You might argue that five days of work is natural. However, people’s time spent in work varies between countries and has varied over history. In the 19th century, people worked 10 hours a day for six days a week . Then, labor movements lobbied governments to legislate 8 hour work days for five days a week. Now collectively, we are facing multiple issues including our climate emergency, gender equality, and mental wellness. A shorter working week is one tool for dealing with these issues, with potential gains in productivity.
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that the world has 12 years (now 11 years, the clock is ticking) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% of 2010 levels to avoid more than a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures . The inspired protests by Greta Thunberg, fellow children, and Extinction Rebellion have brought our climate emergency to the forefront of the public’s awareness. One method to reduce greenhouse gasses is a shorter working week as evidenced by the positive correlation, on country scales, between the number of working hours in a week and greenhouse gas emissions . More free time can encourage people to participate in lower carbon intensive activities including cooking with raw food, gardening, and bicycling. Large societal changes are needed in mitigating and adapting to our climate emergency; a four day week is one potentially important societal change.
Though strides have been made in terms of gender equality, much work is required. One impediment to achieving gender equality is that women predominantly do society’s unpaid care work including childcare, parental care, cooking, and cleaning. This unequal distribution of unpaid care work hampers women’s career progression and workplace gender parity. For example, U.K. women are four times more likely to quit paid work for unpaid care work compared to men . Furthermore, when women are in full time careers, they often have a ‘second shift’ at home, in total working longer hours than a non-employed household carer. A shorter working week could make employment more accessible for people who provide unpaid care work and alongside degendering care work encourage men to pick up more care work.
Wage stagnation, working long hours, and lack of autonomy are all contributing to lowered wellbeing. Although employment rates in many Western countries (including Canada) have increased back to their levels prior to the 2008 crash, wage growth has slowed and has not matched inflation . This stagnation of wages increases the likelihood of people entering long term debt and living from month to month. Working long hours, sometimes as a result of debt, has serious mental and physical health issues including mental fatigue, lack of sleep, and heart/respiratory issues . Finally, time spent in obligated activities compared to self-directed activities in and out of work leads to people feeling a lack of autonomy over their lives and lowers wellbeing . A four day week could account for wage stagnation, reduce health issues from working long hours, and increase autonomy in people’s lives, improving wellbeing.
People claim that working more hours increases productivity; however, several studies have shown the reverse to be the case up to a certain point. This is illustrated best by German workers spending less time working than U.K. workers but overall Germany has greater productivity . Part of this pattern is due to lower investments in automation in the U.K. compared to Germany. Regardless of amount invested in automation, longer hours is associated with fatigue and lower health which in turn lowers worker performance and motivation [8,9]. In one experiment, Swedish care-home nurses worked for six hours a day instead of eight. These nurses reported fewer sick days, higher health, and organised more activities for their patients . Although regular holidays have positive effects on health and wellbeing, these effects often disappear three days after returning from the holiday . Instead, regular rest days each week could produce greater health and welbeing and boost productivity.
A four day week is not a silver bullet to fix our societal issues. Many other changes are required. There can also be negative consequences if a four day week is not implemented well [7,11] However, the benefits certainly suggest that all professions should seriously examine lowering working hours and potentially implement a four day week.
So why should grad students, postdocs, and faculty care about a four day week. Well, universities are not immune to the problems outlined above. Admittedly, academics and their grad students/postdocs do have the ability to set their own hours unlike other professions. However, many academics are known to work 60 hours or more a week [12,13], depression and anxiety are prevalent in graduate student populations , most universities have not reached faculty gender parity , and wage stagnation is impoverishing graduate students (see below). Although there are many other initiatives that are required to ameliorate these issues, a four day week could be one effective initiative in academia.
A clear reason for a four day week for graduate students is wage stagnation. In Canada, where I am doing my PhD, the national science and engineering (NSERC) scholarships have not risen for at least 16 years (in 2003, a Masters scholarship was $17,500 per year, a Doctoral scholarships was $21,000 per year)1. When inflation is taken into account, the $17,500 in 2003 would now be worth about $23,300, a loss of $6000 (the Doctoral scholarship would now be worth $28,000, a loss of $7000)2. That $6000 is equivalent to receiving the income from an extra teaching assistantship of ten hours a week for one semester without doing the work. In all likelihood, income paid for by supervisors is equal to or less than the NSERC scholarships3. Now, let us compare the current normal income of science Masters and PhD students to the poverty level in Canada. The Canadian official poverty line for an individual in 2015 was $16,000-$20,000 . When you factor in tuition payments (about $7000 per year on average in Canada ) and one teaching assistantship per year (about $6000), Masters students with the NSERC scholarship are on or below the poverty line ($17,500+$6,000-$7,000 = $16,500). PhD students with the NSERC scholarship are on or just above the poverty line ($21,000+$6,000-$7,000 = $20,000). Notably, these calculations do not take into account student debt which compounds the problem. I do not know the incomes for graduate students in the humanities and other countries, but I suspect there will be similarities. Not receiving that extra $6000 certainly makes me question why we work five days a week as grad students.
There will always be a discussion as to whether graduate students are workers or not (my opinion is that they are workers). Furthermore, many graduate students often take on volunteer work in their departments in addition to their research. So for graduate students, recommending exactly working four days is unrealistic. At the very least, for all the reasons outlined above, graduate students should never feel guilty about taking days off for rest, part time work or other commitments. Similarly for all the reasons above, postdocs and faculty could actively encourage four day weeks for themselves and their laboratories.
To end, graduate students and postdocs, do not ever feel guilty about taking a day off or a day off once a week. Spend that day on your mental wellness, on a part time job, on any care obligations, or on volunteer work.
Faculty, live by example; take a day off once a week or frequently and actively encourage your grad students and postdocs to do the same.
My connection to the four day week
During my Masters, between my research, teaching, and volunteer commitments, I frequently worked one day in the weekend plus full days during the week (this was my own choice and was not enforced nor encouraged by my Masters supervisor). When I started my PhD, I stopped working on the weekends. However, due to a variety of reasons including trying to start my PhD while trying to publish my Masters, I began to feel burnt out. During this time, I learned about the benefits of a four day week. Therefore, as a way to balance my work with my mental wellbeing, I decided to try working four days a week for several months. On each fifth day, I walk in the local arboretum and write blog posts for my “If you want a different world, tell a different story” blog series. Several months down the line, I will post an update to this experiment.
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- Watts J. We Have 12 Years to Limit Climate Change Catastophe, Warns UN. Guardian 2018.
- Frey P. The Ecological Limits of Work: On Carbon Emissions, Carbon Budgets and Working Time. Autonomy; 2019.
- Carers UK. State of Caring 2017. 2017.
- OECD. Rising Employment Overshadowed by Unprecedented Wage Stagnation 2018.
- Åkerstedt T, Olsson B, Ingre M, Holmgren M, Kecklund G. A 6-Hour Working Day-Effects on Health and Well-Being. Journal of Human Ergology 2001;30:197–202.
- Stronge W, Harper A, Guizzo D, Lewis K, Ellis-Petersen M, Harper A, et al. The Shorter Working Week: A Radical and Pragmatic Proposal. Autonomy; 2019.
- Kodz J, Davis S, Lain D, Strebler M, Rick J, Bates P, et al. Working Long Hours: A Review of the Evidence. Volume 1 — Main Report. Department of Trade and Industry; 2003. doi:10.13140/2.1.4808.3527.
- Collewet M, Sauermann J. Working Hours and Productivity. Labour Economics 2017;47:96–106. doi:10.1016/j.labeco.2017.03.006.
- Savage M. What Really Happened When Swedes Tried Six-Hour Days? BBC 2017.
- Moorhouse A. Britons Do Work the Longest Hours but a Four-Day Week Is Not the Answer – This Is What We Should Do Instead. Independent 2019.
- Woolston C. Workplace Habits: Full-Time Is Full Enough. Nature 2017;546:175–7. doi:10.1038/nj7656-175a.
- Powell K. Young, Talented and Fed-up: Scientists Tell Their Stories. Nature News 2016;538:446. doi:10.1038/538446a.
- Flaherty C. Mental Health Crisis for Grad Students. Inside Higher Ed 2018.
- Catalyst. Quick Take: Women In Academia 2017.
- Statistics Canada. Tutition Fees for Degree Programs, 2018/19. Statistics Canada 2018.