Jacinda Ardern has a simple solution to save New Zealand's economy – Boris Johnson should follow suit

Sirena Bergman@SirenaBergman
Thursday 21 May 2020 06:45
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(Getty)

Next week, as you go about your standard, socially distanced, new-normal life, think about whether you're walking with a spring in your step.

As yourself: Do you feel lighter, cheerier, more neighbourly and altruistic? Have you oddly managed to drink less, and cook more? Have you found yourself having fewer arguments with children/significant other/colleagues?

If the answer is yes, you will not be surprised to find out te likely reason: next Monday is a bank holiday – making it a four-day week.

There is mountains of evidence out there to suggest that working shorter weeks can increase our general wellbeing. In 2015, a huge study of 600,000 people across three different continents found that those who worked longer hours were 33 per cent more likely to have a stroke, 30 per cent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and 13 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease.

Other studies have also shown that working shorter hours leads to a better sleep pattern, which in turn has a number of health benefits.

There should be little doubt that working less increases quality of life, but what about the economy?

After all, isn't capitalism based on sacrificing the wellbeing of workers so that the rich can get richer? Wouldn't working less be basically anarchy?!

Actually, no.

In fact, working a four-day week could actually be the key to saving the economy, particularly for areas heavily reliant on tourism.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – who has received widespread praise for her handling of the coronavirus outbreak and has become one of the first countries to re-open – said in a Facebook Live yesterday that she'd "heard lots of people suggesting we should have a four-day work week". She said this was a decision for employers to make, but added:

There’s just so much we’ve learnt about Covid and that flexibility of people working from home, the productivity that can be driven out of that. 

I’d really encourage people to think about that if you’re an employer and in a position to do so. To think about if that’s something that would work for your workplace because it certainly would help tourism all around the country.

The thinking is obvious: more free time means more ability to travel. With international travel so heavily limited, New Zealand needs to push domestic tourism in order to avoid the complete collapse of the industry – which is worth $16.2bn (£8bn) and 6 per cent of the country's GDP.

The British right doesn't like to admit its reliance on the tourism industry, except when they're talking up the financial benefits of the monarchy.

But lockdown aside, with Brexit potentially having a huge impact on EU tourism, we're going to need to find other ways of making up the cash.

A four-day week seems like an obvious place to start. And there are additional benefits to increasing the amount of leisure time people have.

The five-day week dates back to the early 20th century. In the UK, Boots found that giving workers two days off a week reduced absenteeism and had a positive effect on productivity, and hence, weekends became the norm and have stayed so ever since. But almost 100 years later, surely it's time for a re-think?

Ever since technological advances have automated human jobs, people have been calling for a shorter work week. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes (whose economic theory was used as a justification for bailing out the banks after the last economic crash) famously predicted that we would end up seeing a 15-hour work week thanks to automation. Needless to say, this has not materialised.

The reasons why are complex: we have yet to find it within ourselves as a society to see workers as human beings with agency, as opposed to simply cogs in a capitalist wheel.

As long as the people working are treated like machines that will yield more results the longer they're switched on for, the idea of flexible working and shorter hours for the same salary will be baffling to employers.

Yet the tide is changing... slightly.

Since lockdown began, the vast majority of organisations still functioning are doing so remotely, and anecdotal evidence suggests this isn't having much of an impact on productivity, despite the many challenges given the sudden nature of the change (tech issues, lack of childcare, etc.).

Further, as the economy struggles to get through the pandemic, we're seeing employers themselves implement a number of changes, slimming down their workforce through furloughs and cutting salaries – often cutting down employees' hours proportionally.

All of these measures will, in the long term, serve to prove whether more flexible working is actually more efficient.

Studies have already shown this to be the case. Research conducted by Microsoft in Japan last year showed that giving workers an extra day off boosted productivity by 40 per cent. It also yielded savings for the company as the office was closed for an extra day a week. Tech companies have long been at the cutting edge of rethinking work, from open-plan offices with colourful slides and free lunches, to unlimited holiday and no fixed hours, which allows performance to be measured on output (what you actually achieve) rather than input (the amount of time you spend doing so).

But now more traditional companies are realising the benefits too.

Restaurant chain Shake Shack expanded a four-day-week trial last November, citing huge "recruitment opportunities", and New Zealand financial services company Perpetual Guardian trialled a four-day week in 2018, reporting that there was "no downside", as productivity and efficiency increased.

The increasing numbers (pre-Covid) of people choosing to be self-employed, making their own working hours through freelance projects, side hustles and gig economy jobs, shows there is an appetite among the workforce for more autonomy in terms of how, when and how much we work.

The Labour Party recognised this, and officially included moving a four-day work week in its 2019 manifesto, citing credible studies to show how and why it would work if we were to increase education and training to up productivity. The Tories vociferously opposed it, but now's the time to reconsider.

Jacinda Ardern's response to the pandemic has been proven effective in saving tens of thousands of lives.

She prioritised keeping people safe over political wins and worked to ensure those most disadvantaged were afforded the necessary support.

By contrast, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have focused on point-scoring, truth-obfuscating and rich-people-protecting. New Zealand has had no new cases of coronavirus for four days in a row and it recorded only 21 deaths. The UK and US have the highest death tolls in the world, with a staggering combined 128,000 deaths and counting.

When lockdown ends, we're going to face huge economic challenges.

But it may also present an opportunity to drastically re-think a lot of the things we take for granted.

Ardern sees this clearly and is actively encouraging it, because she knows it's the way forward, and her attitude works not only to keep a country safe, but to keep it onside too – as of this week she is officially the most popular New Zealand prime minister in a century.

If Boris Johnson wants to salvage what little popularity he has left, with an electorate increasingly seeing through his posturing, he'd do well to consider thinking outside the box too.

Not only would a four-day work week help to boost local tourism, it would increase population wellbeing, workers' productivity and – ultimately – make more money for the rich, which is what the Tories are all about. It's a win-win, and one Boris Johnson should seriously consider.

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