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Shifting toward a shorter working week holds many advantages

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18 Dec 2021 03:12:59 GMT9
18 Dec 2021 03:12:59 GMT9

At the turn of the new year, the UAE will be the first country in the world to adopt a 4.5-day work week, shorter than the global average of five days. The policy is an ambitious and excellent decision to harmonize the country’s working hours with global markets, promising to facilitate economic and financial dealings.

Perhaps more importantly, the UAE government is committed to designing flexible working arrangements that promote an enhanced work-life balance. By addressing systemic changes within labor policies, employees will be able to carve out more time for family, friendships, health, education, community involvement and leisure.

Modern life demands that labor policies consider the breadth of nonwork domains that affect an employee’s ability to work and be productive. To illustrate, flexible working arrangements can enable employees to pursue higher education, embark on research sabbaticals, manage a small enterprise on the side, freelance, self-manage chronic illnesses, pursue hobbies, exercise, go on enriching holidays, and care for vulnerable dependents.

On the other hand, the lack of these flexible working arrangements is deemed as a universal challenge faced by workers across the globe. A number of correlated issues are at the heart of this economic and social discussion, with many labor markets witnessing an exodus inherently due to the way we work. Longer hours have been linked to high chronic stress levels, burnout, depression, social ostracization and health problems.

On a more personal level, many employees are struggling with managing care duties, often relying on costly care services for children and elderly family members. Governments have a central role to play in designing labor policies that are flexible enough for workers to successfully combine work, personal life and family commitments in a way that improves the wellbeing levels of communities.

In fact, more studies are shedding light on the impact of flexible working arrangements on both economic and wellbeing aspects. Benefits include enhanced ability to attract and retain high-performing and experienced staff, reduced absenteeism, ability to manage work and personal commitments, increased job satisfaction, elevated energy and creativity, lowered stress levels, lowered office overhead costs, and positive impacts on the environment.

A recent prominent study by the Henley Business School in 2019 engaged over 500 business leaders and 2,000 employees, including businesses that are implementing a four-day work week. The results reveal the positive effects of a shorter work week, such as increasing talent acquisition and retention, enhancing employee satisfaction, reporting lower employee absenteeism, and boosting productivity. Moreover, the researchers calculated a net saving of £92 billion a year to UK businesses, due to running businesses efficiently, not to mention the reduction in pollution and fuel consumption.

In recent years, many progressive governments and enterprises have made efforts to shift toward more inclusive, flexible, and equity-centered working arrangements. For instance, the national government of Iceland and Reykjavík city council conducted two trials between 2015 and 2019 to test the efficacy of shorter work weeks. Participants shifted from a 40-hour week to a 35 or 36-hour week. Results reveal the positive impact on productivity and wellbeing, with around 86 percent of employees now working shorter hours without taking a cut to their pay.

In another example, in June 2021, Japan’s Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy announced recommendations to companies to allow employees to shift to a four-day work week. Expected benefits include retaining experienced staff, caring for elderly relatives or children, making time for family or socializing, and addressing the country’s falling birth rates.

Meanwhile, this year, the Spanish government launched a three-year pilot project to test the efficacy of a 32-hour work week for companies, offering a grant of €50 million ($56 million). Also, the multinational consumer goods company Unilever is conducting a 12-month trial on a four-day working week for its New Zealand staff. Results will steer the direction toward expanding the policy to its global staff of 149,000.

Despite the abundance of evidence extolling the benefits of shorter work weeks, it is no surprise that the idea is still facing resistance on the presumption that economic gains and productivity might be affected. However, a deep-dive into the number of working hours and productivity levels of nations indicates otherwise. Enlightening OECD figures reveal that some countries have achieved an optimal level of productivity with shorter working hours compared with their peers, such as Germany, France and Denmark.

It is important that policymakers design flexible employment policies that maximize productivity and deliver economic gains, while empowering employees to carve out precious time for their wellbeing and those they care for.

Sara Al-Mulla

Astute investments in technologies and solutions that boost work productivity are gaining momentum. For example, research and development in productivity solutions, remote work, online collaboration tools, automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics are delivering stellar productivity gains without the need for employees to be physically present in offices or service centers.

On this note, the global pandemic has spurred employers to rethink flexible working arrangements and remote work, with many enterprises shifting toward such arrangements on a permanent basis due to preliminary data on its excellent productivity gains, cost efficiencies and improved employee wellbeing.

Governments and enterprises are further encouraged to trial the concept of flexible working arrangements to evaluate its impact on their businesses. A number of options are available within the framework of flexible working arrangements, such as reduced hours, flex time, compressed work week, part-time jobs, remote work and leave granted for different purposes. Diligent plans must be drafted to outline the job expectations, duties and deadlines for all staff to agree on workload management and working hours to deliver on commitments.

That said, nations are able to compete globally through the creativity and ingenuity of their labor force. Thus, it is important that policymakers design flexible employment policies that maximize productivity and deliver economic gains, while empowering employees to carve out precious time for their wellbeing and those they care for.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at
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