In primary three at my son’s school, they are learning about hobbies. My son came home to interview me about mine.
I was stumped.
“You must have some hobbies. Everyone has hobbies.”
“Reading? Put down reading,” I said, thinking this might set a good example, although most of the reading I’ve done recently has been for work.
He looked back at the page in front of him. “What do you do in your spare time?”
“Oh, son,” I definitely didn’t say because I want him to feel positive about his future, “When do you think I have spare time?”
I don’t, though. I work three freelance jobs, in addition to my own writing (a play and a novel, currently) and this fortnightly column. I do all of this work while my children are in school, on the two days a week we can afford a childminder after school, and in the evenings, once they’re in bed.
When my children are not in school, I spend time with them, and while that is joyful and wonderful, it can also be exhausting and it is definitely not spare time.
I am permanently tired and our day-to-day life feels flung together and improvised. On the two or three days a week I manage to cook the family a meal from scratch rather than relying on fish fingers and Alphabites from the freezer, I get a sense of achievement I probably don’t deserve. Ditto when my partner and I actually make time to stop work and watch an hour of television before bed.
UK has a very strange relationship with work
I’m very far from an outlier here. Most of the other parents I talk to feel similarly stretched and knackered. “I think everyone is winging it,” mumbled a pal at the school gate in our five minutes of catch-up time before we returned to our homes and computers.
“Everyone is about to crash, but they can’t afford to let that happen. So, we’ll just keep on chucking our crashed bodies back into it.” My childfree friends, who are more likely to take on more and more hours, are reporting similar levels of burnout.
Imagine spare time. Imagine time that could be used to relax or develop hobbies or cook food from scratch, time that doesn’t come with an urgent to-do list. Imagine that.
The UK has a very strange relationship with work. We allow it to consume us completely and burn us out – the government’s own statistics show that one in four UK sick leave days are taken as a direct result of overwork.
As workers, we tolerate more than other countries, too. We meekly accept that the maximum an employee can work (our legal work week) is 48 hours (averaged over a period of 17 weeks). In France, the legal work week is 35 hours. In the Netherlands, the average work week is 32.4 hours. Imagine that.
Well, some workers in Scotland might not have to imagine it much longer. This week, the Scottish Government announced it is trialling a four-day working week for civil servants. Details are still light but, presuming they’re adhering to proposals set out on the 4 Day Week Campaign website, that’s a 32-hour working week (organised flexibly to suit individual employees), with no decrease in pay, provided that there is also no decrease in productivity.
Four-day week is a good start for systematic change
Because of the ridiculously partisan way Scottish political culture operates these days, the news was greeted with the same snide pooh-poohing that seemingly any Scottish Government announcement receives these days, even though most of those snide voices would probably also benefit from an extra day off. So, let’s be objective. The idea of a four-day week did not originate with the SNP, and to fold discussion of it along partisan independence lines is irresponsible and does everyone a disservice.
Four-day weeks have been introduced by companies all over the globe. The world’s largest trial concluded right here, across the UK, in December 2022, where 61 companies took part; 56 of them are still continuing the initiative now.
It is predicated on the idea that the nine-to-five, five-day week is an old-fashioned concept that no longer fits contemporary society. And the change doesn’t just benefit employees; a trial by Microsoft in Japan proved that overall workforce productivity actually increased, as the reduced hours focused minds, and brains were less stressed.
The drop in carbon impact for the UK – as commutes and energy usage are reduced, and the country relies less on overproduced, readymade food – would be the equivalent of taking 27 million cars off the road.
Just because something is the way we’ve always done it doesn’t mean it’s correct. Or that it can’t be changed.
Of course, the current ideal of a four-day week really only benefits salaried, white-collar workers. A country seriously taking on board the four-day week, absorbing it into its structure, would need to legislate on an economy prioritising wellbeing for all, and vastly increased minimum wage. Otherwise, we run the risk of a two-tier system, where salaried workers have an additional day off while people who earn hourly wages or on contract are still working five days a week.
But, as a starting base for systematic change, the four-day week feels like a good one.
Something has to give. Let’s not have it be us.
Kirstin Innes is the author of the novels Scabby Queen and Fishnet, and co-author of non-fiction book Brickwork: A Biography of the Arches