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When Will It End?

Daniel Fryer, mental health and wellbeing expert, thinks shift work requires a shift in thinking.

One hot Saturday afternoon at the height of summer, I was enjoying a late lunch with friends in a great barbecue restaurant overlooking Bristol harbour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its location and the weather, it was very busy. But our waiter, even though he was clearly rushed off his feet, still found time to be amiable. I asked him how much longer his shift was. “I don’t know,” was his weary reply. I enquired as to why. “That’s hospitality, isn’t it?” he said, and went on to explain why it was common to be expected to work until the work was done, or until you were told you could finish up and go.

In hospitality (as well as many other sectors), 12-hour shifts are common, and eight-hour working days are de rigueur everywhere but, shifts of indeterminate duration? That’s new, isn’t it?

Also, it’s not good for anybody’s mental health and wellbeing. Mind you, neither are our current working patterns. But have you ever wondered why we work the shifts that we do?

Those 12-hour shifts (or longer) are actually throwbacks to the Industrial Revolution, when factories needed to be kept running 24/7 and labour laws were few and far between.

The eight-hour day or 40-hour working week was a social movement fighting to get away from the excesses and abuses that workers of the time were subject to. Although the eight-hour day began in 16th-century Spain, the modern movement here in the UK began a few hundred years later.

In 1817, Welsh textile manufacturer and philanthropist Robert Owen coined the slogan "eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest," as a backlash against working patterns designed to keep those factories going both day and night. And so, the notion of a 40-hour working week was born. We’ve been stuck with it ever since.

In fact, many people the world over are working much longer than that, which is why work stress is the number one cause of staff absenteeism. So much for that predicted technological liberation.

However, in the same world over, countries and organisations are turning towards the idea and benefits of the four-day working week (common to many people working those 12-hour shifts but not in a good way).

In fact, 70 companies (involving over 3,000 employees) here in the UK signed up to a four-day working week trial at the beginning of June.

The pilot, which runs for six months, has been organised by the 4 Day Week Global in partnership with the thinktank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign, together with researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University, and Boston College.

The trial is based on a 100:80:100 model, which means that workers will receive 100 percent of pay for 80 percent of the time, in exchange for maintaining 100 percent productivity.

Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and lead researcher on the pilot (which rolls out soon in Spain and Scotland), described it as an historic trial. “We’ll be analysing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel, and many other aspects of life,” she said.

Work stress, workplace wellbeing and burnout are of particular interest to me and so I will be looking forward to the results of the trial. After all, we are told often that work is essential to, not only our wellness but also our sense of purpose. With that in mind, what interests me more than the current trial, however, is a previous study that found that when it comes to our mental health wellbeing, we only need to work eight hours a week.

Yes, you read that right.

The 2019 study, published in Social Science & Medicine, found that working just eight hours a week was enough to gain the wellbeing benefits of full-time employment and that happiness and wellbeing did not increase alongside hours. Simply put, people working eight hours a week felt just as happy as (if not happier than) those working a full 40-hour week or more. And they felt that their contributions to society were just as meaningful.

Whilst I’m not saying that the hospitality industry (or any industry for that matter) should only employ people for eight hours a day, I am sure the sector can do better than archaic 12-hour shifts and the more modern phenomenon of shifts where you don’t know when it’s going to end.

Daniel Fryer is a mental health and wellbeing expert and founder of the workplace wellness consultancy How To Be. He uses rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT), positive psychology and hypnotherapy to help people achieve their goals. Daniel is the author of The Four Thoughts That F*ck You Up (and how to fix them), published by Penguin Random House. He is currently figuring out how to work just eight hours a week.


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