Should Africa consider a four-day working week?

The idea of a three-day weekend would make for an enticing prospect for many.

We may not have heard much being spoken about it in Africa, but doubts have been growing about productivity and the culture of long working hours.

The subject came up at the World Economic Forum last month, during which the world was urged to embrace the four-day working week.

It is already in the public domain how research is busting the notion that long working hours such as may be seen in some of the Asian countries has a link to more productivity.

There is accumulating evidence that a shorter working week not only improves productivity but has an overall effect on the well-being and work satisfaction of employees.

In July last year, the World Economic Forum reported in an article how trial results in New Zealand had “attracted a huge amount of interest around the world, with an audience of 3.2 billion people in 32 countries engaging with the idea.”

This is probably not surprising. I don’t know many people who would mind an extra weekend day.

The article explains how academics who studied the trial reported lower stress levels, higher levels of job satisfaction and an improved sense of work-life balance.

Critically, they also say, workers were 20 per cent more productive.

The firm that trialled the four-day working week was also reported to have confirmed it will adopt the measure on a permanent basis.

It makes one wonder whether this is something we could see here soon.

As one who, like the next person, craves more time for my more personal and pleasurable pursuits away from the grind, I have on occasion had a thing or two to say about work.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, as has previously been observed, the idea of work as we know it today is neither natural nor very old.

Academics who have explored the history of movements for reduced working hours and shorter working days show work as “an accident of history.”

They also demonstrate how it is a recent construct, particularly within the period spanning the 16th-century and the 20th-century.

Before, all cultures, including those in Africa, thought of work as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Our forebears thought work as something to be accomplished as quickly as possible so that the rest of life could happen.

Current research vindicates them. Long hours don’t necessarily result in improved productivity.

The WEF analysis noted above notes how South Korea, for example, ranks near to the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for labour productivity despite having a culture of working very long hours.

Similarly, within Europe, Greece has one of the longest working weeks, but comes out bottom in the OECD’s measure of GDP per hour worked.              

Japan is another example of a country where a culture of long working hours does not tally with increased productivity.

Japan is now deliberately cutting down on overtime, and using tactics such as turning the lights out at the end of the working day, in order to reverse this trend.

While research is still ongoing, taking into consideration experiences such as in Sweden where the WEF analysis observes that “although employees reported an improved quality of life, with less stress and more time to spend with their families, it was also an expensive experiment for the local council who had to hire extra workers to make up for the shortfall in hours.”

But if the idea four-day working week is worth emulation, perhaps attention should be on the New Zealand that trialed its workers to adopt it into a work schedule without any reduction in their salaries or other benefits.

The firm is reported committing that staff will be able to come into the office and work normal hours for five hours, if that is their preference.

Others will be able to start or finish early to avoid traffic congestion and manage their childcare commitments, while others could opt for compressed hours.

I am not aware whether four-day working week has been conducted here, but I think it is about time somebody devised a research project to see how it would work in an African setting.

Twitter: @gituram

The views expressed in this article are of the author.