Employers across Yorkshire are being urged to switch to a four-day working week to tackle the “worrying crisis of overwork” that is making employees ill.
Aiden Harper, founding member of the 4 Day Week campaign and researcher at think tank the New Economics Foundation told the Yorkshire Post that switching to working four days a week instead of five as standard would benefit workers, companies and the economy.
The message comes as figures released today shows one in five Yorkshire workers are faking a physical illness to take time off work for their mental health over fears of being judged or sacked.
Workers in the region have taken an average of four days a year off work due to stress, depression and anxiety and 64 per cent lied to their boss about the cause, the research by law firm Slater and Gordon found.
Mr Harper said the evidence from companies that have switched to four-day weeks shows everyone from individual workers to the UK economy as a whole would benefit.
He said: “There's a lot of evidence that shows that overwork is particularly bad for an individual, for their wellbeing and mental health, leading to presenteeism - people turning up to work when they’re burnt out and unable to work.”
He pointed to research by government body the Health and Safety Executive which shows that by far the biggest cause of sick leave in the UK is work-related stress, anxiety and depression which has been increasing year on year.
“Every other type of work-related illness has gone down over the last 30 years but in terms of mental health issues, they’ve been steadily increasing.
“Worryingly, the biggest single cause of work-related stress and depression is overwork, as one in four sick days lost last year was as a result of overwork and the impact that has on stress, anxiety and depression - that’s a trend that’s been increasing over the last 10-15 years.
“It’s worrying, we’d say it’s a crisis of overwork.”
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He said, despite the enormous number of people suffering across the region and across the UK, employers and the government tended to treat the problem as an individual issue.
“We talk about self-help programmes, read books about how to sleep well, we have one-on-one management meetings. But the answer is not to individualise it, it’s to look at the structural causes,” he said.
For workers, joining a trade union was one way to work towards shorter working hours, while employers should understand the “moral duty” they have to look after their employees and recognise the economic benefits of not overworking them.
“Though it’s not the most important thing, obviously it makes business sense to make sure your employees are productive and can think clearly and that they don’t leave the organisation. It’s incredibly expensive to burn out your employees,” he added.
National chairman Mike Cherry of the FSB, which represents small businesses, said while a four-day week may work for some small businesses, it would not work for all.
“Freedom and flexibility are the watchwords here. A small consultancy working on long-term projects with fixed deadlines may find that four-day weeks are viable, and helpful. But if you’re in industries like fishing, logistics and construction where you simply have to spend extensive amounts of times in the field, it’s not a model that’s likely to fit.
“Increasing productivity among the small firms that make-up 99 per cent of our business community is a must. But reducing output to four days a week is not going to solve the UK’s productivity issues. Ensuring employees are happy and motivated at work is vital, but small firms must be given the space and freedom to work out how best to achieve this in their unique environments. No two businesses are the same, so forcing a four-day week on to all of them is clearly not helpful.”
A spokesman for the CBI, which also represents businesses, added: “At a time when flexible working is becoming more essential than ever, rigid approaches feel like a step in the wrong direction. Businesses are clear that politicians should work with them to avoid policies that work as a soundbite but not a solution.”
The Institute of Directors' chief economist, Tej Parikh said: “Positive steps have been made on mental health at work over recent years, but there is still room for improvement, and more and more directors are eager to lead on the issue. Flexible working practices provide just one avenue to improve staff wellbeing, employers can also look to bolster the working environment too, and further support for smaller firms to implement employee wellbeing programs in their organisations is well worth exploring.”