Even before COVID-19, there’s been a lot of discussion about reducing hours at work. Typically, the talk is about working four days instead of five days a week, all for the same pay. Sounds like an unbelievably tempting offer doesn’t it? Lockdown has also forced to us to rethink being present at work, travel to work, technology and our work-life balance so we can meet our personal and professional responsibilities.
The problem is much of this chat and change all seems very focused on an office-based working environment where you might not need to be sitting at your desk all day, every day. It doesn’t readily work for those in many other roles, such as retail, hospitals, and schools. In a whole range of roles, people cannot simply decide to reduce working hours, because people rely upon them to be there, to support them, and to deliver services.
But the idea of working differently has always interested me. I’ve been thinking about the hours we spend working, getting ready for work, travelling to work, thinking about work, and talking about it – outside those hours we actually do it or are paid for it. It made we wonder what changes can help us work more closely to the hours we are paid for. Now, through the lockdown, the use of technology has forced me to seriously consider that like never before.
I meet a lot of people who are contracted for around 37 hours each week. Yet they work many more hours than that. This usually happens by arriving early in the morning, missing breaks and lunchtimes, doing extra tasks (like work shopping or laundry), staying late, bringing work home, or working weekends. It is a familiar scene – and a life that I have lived myself. Some professions are expected to do all of this without complaint. We do this because we are committed and we care.
There is a total of 168 hours for us to spend each week. We should be aiming for a minimum of eight hours sleep a night, which comes to 56 hours and leaves us with 112 awake hours. We should expect and enjoy a weekend to rest and spend time with family and friends. That uses up another 32. And so to live and to work in the week we only have around 80 hours left. If we work full-time, then that is almost half our time. It starts to feel really important we use the rest of our time carefully.
And this is why. It is so easy to spend our free time doing work related things on top of the paid time, and that extra time we might already be spending on work. I am thinking about things like travel to work time. How much is that for you? ACAS reported the 2011 census found the average commute to work time was 54 minutes (www.acas.gov.uk 2015). That is a staggering nine hours a week. If you travel less than the average then you are already doing better than most to manage your time.
But I wonder about hidden time we are spending when we are thinking or talking about work when we should be living instead. And how much time do we spend preparing ourselves for work too, doing things like getting work clothes ready, preparing our personal presentation, organising our lunches, and being physically and mentally healthy for work? It is starting to feel like we spend up to double our working time on work related activities. A time deficit of 25 hours plus in our working weeks could be a familiar story. So rethinking work hours shouldn’t be just about a four-day week instead of a five day one, it should be about making sure we work the hours we need to, valuing our time differently, and perhaps prioritising a healthy balance. Thank goodness for holidays that’s what I say – as long as we switch off from work of course.