Britain needs a revolution in its approach to work, leisure and business

Britain has a productivity problem.

2016 saw the biggest productivity gap between the UK and other western countries since 1991 and is the lowest in the G7. In terms of hours worked, Britain has a much lower output than its nearest rivals. Despite baffling politicians, this trend probably does not surprise the average Southern rail commuter to London.  Last month’s rail strike meant that people had to make 6 hour trips in to the capital. The last thing they would feel after such a journey is that of a fired-up happy and productive worker.

Even without the strikes, Britain has a bad record when it comes to the length of its average commute and is now ranked the worst in Europe With roughly a third of commuters taking more than two hours to get into work the British workforce is regularly turned into zombies after an exhausting and stressful journey: the length of commute is routinely cited as a reason for a change of job. Long commutes are also proven to have an adverse effect on physical and mental wellbeing. With wages lagging behind prices and all this unpaid commuting time, many people no longer have a sensible work/life balance.

Weekdays have become a time when many do not have the inclination to engage with wider social and leisure activities, adversely affecting local communities.

Business needs to be encouraged to embrace wholeheartedly change

Government is certainly not solely to blame. However, they have not questioned the current the culture of long working days and low pay. Somebody who works several jobs or long hours for little reward is a ‘striver’ and therefore to be admired. It is not questioned why someone should be in that position in the first place. Indeed, last year Jeremy Hunt continued to praise the ‘hardworking’ Americans and Chinese, implying that importing this ethic is a cure for our productivity gap. But the corporate mentality of the USA - probably the closest to this country  - is  the last thing Britain should emulate. It is the sort of ‘hire and fire’ culture whereby no job is safe and people are terrified to take any sick days or holidays even when entitled. That is not a price worth paying for higher productivity.

For lower salaried workers it is even worse: companies, such as Amazon and Sports Direct, have taken a similar approach in terms of dehumanising employees by punishing those who take sick days or docking pay for being late and banning ‘excessive’ trips to the toilet. Is this helpful either to long-term productivity? We should not allow corporations to get away with it, particularly when those at the top continue to pay themselves huge salaries.

What is needed is nothing short of a revolution in terms of our approach to work, leisure and business. The government has been meekly changing its attitude in terms of cutting down on corporate exploitation and attempting to deal with the wage gap and employee representation on boards. These are welcome innovations but is still overly cautious and hardly a visionary approach.

Business needs to be encouraged to embrace wholeheartedly change some of which that have been happening over the last few decades. There needs to be an end to the intransigence of the nine to five. Mandating everyone to be in at the same time only aggravates the constipated congestion. Allowing universal flexitime where people can come in earlier or later not only staggers the commute and relieves the transport system, it also accommodates different types of workers.

Secondly, we need more ‘telecommuting’.  Too many office jobs do not need to be in London or big cities and can be done remotely. The office itself is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It is also ridiculously expensive, second only to salaries when it comes to business expenses. Not only would more remote working free up time and costs it would also help to revitalise regional communities, with high streets perhaps converting libraries into mini office spaces and therefore allowing mobile office workers to be more connected to their local area.

To deal with the pay gap, we need a ‘minimum salary’ so that workers pay becomes linked by ratio to those at the top: any increase by top executives must be justified and commensurately rewarded to those at the bottom. Government should also seek to encourage more mutual and co-operative models of business, perhaps giving incentivised grants to shared ownership schemes.

Utopia is more achievable than we first thought

Finally and most radically the government should think about reducing working hours themselves. Sweden has long been experimenting with a six hour working day and where it has been tried it tends to improve productivity as workers switch from procrastination and mere ‘activity’ to short periods of intensive work. Workers are on average mentally better off, more loyal and less prone to sick days than countries that encourage long working hours.

This will not be suitable for all situations but it does provide a direction of travel. The future may catch up faster than the government wishes. Mechanisation and automation may lead to the redundancy of many traditional low wage jobs. Government should not be stuck in a traditional mind-set but embrace change, even to the point of taxing the machines that are replacing humans and moving to a system of universal or guaranteed income as was suggested by the European Commission.  

That is something that is still a long way-off and should not be ideologically driven. However, in terms of productivity and overall worker health and well-being, there are clear positive steps that can be taken now.

In 1516, Thomas Moore imagined in his fictional idyllic island of Utopia that the citizens laboured only six hours a day and were encouraged to pursue leisure and the improvement of the mind as much as work. Perhaps Utopia is more achievable than we first thought. At the very least we should set the short term goals of an end to the grinding commute and a healthier work/life balance.

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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