Shorter working week 'stress-buster'

ANNA PEARSON
Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014

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A four-day working week promoted by one of Britain's top doctors is a "radical" concept worthy of debate, considering the importance of a healthy work-life balance, a Canterbury health leader says.

A business leader in the region, however, says the idea is "nonsense" and imposing a rigid standard would be a backwards step.

Professor John Ashton, the president of the United Kingdom Faculty of Public Health, told British media this week that "a mal-distribution of work" was damaging people's health.

Ashton called for Britain to phase out the five-day week, saying it would help combat high levels of work-related stress and illness.

Too many people were working "crazy" hours and a significant number of people were not working at all, he said.

"We need a four-day week so that people can enjoy their lives, have more time with their families and maybe reduce [workers'] high blood pressure."

Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Alistair Humphrey, of the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB), said it was "a challenging and thought-provoking idea" worthy of debate.

It was particularly relevant in Christchurch, where many people were still dealing with earthquake-related stress three years on, he said.

"The CDHB provides the flexibility for people to work less than a five-day week. At the very least I think flexibility for our employees is important. As a community that is the only way we are going to get through this."

It was important for governments and employers to consider the efficiencies of workers in a way other than just "bums on seats".

"The countries where people work the longest hours actually often generate the least GDP for the amount of hours they work."

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend said it was "nonsense" to suggest a four-day working week would solve everyone's problems.

"I get a bit tired of people who just put straight lines in the sand. That is not how the world works these days. You deal with things on an individual basis. If someone in your workplace is [showing] signs of stress you deal with it," he said.

"A young couple that might be paying off a mortgage with no kids might want to work 60 hours a week. It is all about being accommodating and flexible."

Auckland manufacturing company Manson Marine & Engineering allows its staff to opt for four-day weeks once a month. Staff work 10-hour days that week and earn an extra 12 days off a year as a result.

Managing director Steve Mair said though it was hard to measure any increase in individuals' productivity, staff were happier - especially when it came to spending more time with their families, which could only be a good thing.

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He did not think society was ready for everything to "shut down" for an extra day every week, but said individual businesses could still work out their own flexible arrangements.

Massey University management professor Jarrod Haar said though Ashton's suggestion was "interesting", it might be "somewhat complicated" in practice.

Haar said employees would either have to work four longer days a week, with less time in the evenings - possibly leading to more exhaustion, or take a 20 per cent pay cut, which many New Zealanders could not afford.

Labour Minister Simon Bridges said an across-the-board four-day working week would not be practical in all circumstances and was not something the Government was considering.

"In New Zealand, employees and employers already have the ability to negotiate hours of work and, in some cases, request flexible working arrangements."

Ashton's suggestion, which he made in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, came a day after the British Government extended the right to request working flexible hours to all employees.

Until then, only carers and people looking after children had been able to make such a request.

The Employment Relations Amendment Bill, at present before Parliament in New Zealand, proposes similar changes.

It also removes the six-month period of employment before an employee has the right to request a flexible arrangement, and makes other minor changes.

- The Press

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