It took hundreds of years to decide upon a five-day working week but is it still relevant in our ever-changing and increasingly digital world? Can it meet the new challenges we face in the world of work and beyond? Let's do our research...
Should we work | five days a week?
Breaking it down: where did the five-day working week come from?
Why seven days a week?
So we know that a 24-hour day is based on the time it takes for the Earth to spin on its axis and a 365-day year is approximately how long it takes for our planet to orbit the sun but what’s the story behind the seven days of the week? Well, the concept is believed to have started with the Babylonians, who were an ancient civilisation who lived some 4,000 years ago in modern-day Iraq. The Babylonians were fascinated by the behaviour of the moon. They worked out that it took the moon around 27 days to orbit the Earth and 29.5 days to complete all of its phases. But this is a tricky timespan to work with and so the Babylonians rounded 29.5 down to 28 and divided this number by 4 in recognition of the 4 phases of the moon (source). This gives us 7. The number 7 was also considered sacred at the time as it represented the seven planets believed to make up the solar system: the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn (source). The Babylonians went on to assign each day of the week to one of these planets. This, together with the pagan gods, inspired the Romans some hundreds of years later with the names they gave to the seven days (see the video below for more information). For centuries, the Romans worked on the basis of an eight-day week, but in 321 CE Emperor Constantine established the seven-day week in the Roman calendar (source). Nowadays, many countries including the UK, follow what’s known as the Gregorian calendar which was first introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 (source). History tells us that in addition to the Babylonians and Romans, our calendar was also shaped by the Ancient Greeks and Israelites. But even after all these different influences, you may note that there’s still no mention of the weekend? Read on to find out how this came about …
The build up to the weekend…
The weekend may be what many of us look forward to after a long week at school/work but it hasn’t always been a part of peoples’ lives. In fact, it's a relatively modern phenomenon and took a lot of campaigning from different groups to finally enable us to get ‘that Friday feeling’! Let’s go back to 19th-century Britain…at this time, people were generally expected to work long hours apart from on Sundays which was seen as a holy day in the Christian faith. Yet, since Sundays was the main opportunity for leisure activities, it was not uncommon for some workers to be absent on Monday, still recovering from the excesses of the day before. This became a tradition known as ‘Saint Monday’ (source). For craftsmen and women, they could arrange their work accordingly i.e. working longer on other days to make up for the time lost on Monday. But for factory owners, Saint Monday hurt their productivity, to such an extent that many considered making Saturday a half-day. Religious bodies and trade unions campaigned for such a move. Religious bodies argued that it would improve 'the mental and moral culture of the working classes’ and potentially increase attendance of Church on Sundays while trade unions wanted something formal in place to protect workers’ rights (source). Such a change also looked to resolve the ongoing issue that Saturday is the holy day for Jewish people (Shabbat) whereas Sunday is a holy day for Christians. As more and more businesses adopted the half-day on a Saturday, the leisure industry saw an opportunity to cash-in. Train companies reduced their train fares for those taking a trip to the countryside while music halls and theatres put on Saturday events. Plus, the 1890s saw the scheduling of football matches on a Saturday afternoon (source).
When was the weekend made official?
Debates over the shape of the working week took place in America at a similar time to the UK. A landmark in history occurred in 1926 when Henry Ford, the world-renown car manufacturer made the decision to request workers did a 5 day, 40 hour week, without any changes in wages. It was a move that had both workers' well-being and the economy in mind as a two-day weekend meant there was greater opportunity for people to buy products and trade to flourish (source). In 1932 the US made the decision to adopt the five-day system more formally in an attempt to reduce the negative impacts of the Great Depression such as mass unemployment. In the UK the weekend started to become more formalised from 1934 onwards with health and beauty retailer, Boots being one of the first companies to make it official policy (source). Boots found that by closing their factory on Saturdays and Sundays they did not overproduce stock and they was able to keep more of their staff on the books (i.e. there was much less need to make redundancies). The company also found that it had a positive impact on productivity and staff attendance – perhaps as workers felt more rested. So there we have it… the weekend had finally arrived…but it wasn’t a quick and easy journey to get there!
Happiness and productivity: can they work together?
What does it mean to be happy in your job and what can companies do to help support those who work for them? Dr Laura Giurge of the London Business School and Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford, explains more…
If you love your job, it seems logical that you’d want to spend as much time doing it as possible. As soon as you wake up, you start thinking about it. You head to your workplace, and work there all day. When you get home, you check your emails and make sure you’re up to date before you go to sleep. Then, the next morning you do it all again!
But actually, the research suggests that everyone, even someone who loves their job, needs to take regular breaks from it in order to stay motivated and excited about their work, and do their best work.
“Being happy at work means feeling energised and excited about what you’re doing,” says Dr Laura Giurge, an expert in workplace wellbeing (pictured below). “It also means seeing work as enriching your life and doing something that you are passionate about. You’re doing something that you believe in. And when you are happy at work, you are also more productive.”
Passion for work
It’s very tricky for some people, though. Dr Giurge’s research has shown that lots of people send emails outside of the usual working hours of Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. But those receiving the emails might feel like they ought to respond straight away.
“Technology was introduced as a way to give people more control over their time, and over when and how they work, it was meant to bring us more leisure time” she says. “But research shows that people who adopt modern technologies like email end up working all the time - they end up being always ‘on’” [ready to work]. Yet, the research couldn’t be clearer on the importance of disconnecting from work and taking time away from work to rest and do other things you enjoy. “People who take breaks from their work are happier, healthier, more productive, and can find greater meaning in their work.”
“You would expect people who are really passionate about their work to work all the time and some do, but doing that can undermine your passion for your work.”
There seems to be no single way of working that makes everybody happy. Some people like to commute to the office. Others like to have their own desks at home. And some prefer to work long days for four days of the week, and have a three-day weekend. “And more and more people expect more from their work than a pay cheque.”
Companies are now thinking about how they can help people feel happy at work and even if they need an office at all.
“A lot of companies that I talk to are reconsidering the office,” says Dr Giurge. “What are we using it for? Maybe it’s a place where people come together and socialise. Maybe it’s a place where teams come together and work, and then the more ‘deep’ work [things you have to spend time thinking about and delve into without interruptions] happens somewhere else, like at home, if people choose to do so.”
The changing workplace
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, lots of people have been working from home to reduce their travel in line with government guidelines and the risk of spreading the virus. For many people, this is a new way of working and employers, who have never let their staff work from home before, have been forced to change. “Many organizations went from ‘we can’t possibly do this’ to ‘we have to’, to ‘we can do this’. That is, organizations and managers realised that employees can work from home and started to question whether long hours at the office and frequent travel is necessary.”
Dr Giurge thinks this is a very good thing.
“In today’s economy, it’s not how many hours a person sits at the office or sits in front of their computer that tells you how productive they are. It’s their output and the quality of the work they are producing that matters most,” she says.
But she does think that structure and boundaries around when and how we work are even more important now when many people do everything in one space. The lines between work and non-work are blurring in new and unusual ways, and many employees who are working remotely for the first time are likely to struggle to preserve healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. To signal their loyalty, devotion, and productivity, they may feel they have to work all the time. Afternoons will blend with evenings; weekdays will blend with weekends, and little sense of time off will remain.
The shape of the working week may also have changed for many people during the COVID-19 outbreak due to school and nursery closures. This means that parents have had to juggle work with home-schooling responsibilities. Even companies that already had employees working from home are likely to have had some trouble supporting employees who face the many challenges of working at home in the presence of their families or other members in the household.
“Clear communication about when employees are expected to be available for work and what type of work is essential versus trivial will become increasingly important as many of us use tools like email (which are not limited by time), or work with others across different time zones,” says Dr Giurge.
“I think organisations have a big role to play,” she says. “The employees [workers] are not there to support the leader, the leaders are there to support the employees do their best work. The organisation has to ensure that employees feel safe and supported. It also has to ensure that employees are happy and comfortable to express themselves so that they can be productive and effectively manage the demands of today’s workplace.”
What the future holds…
When the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Dr Giurge thinks – and hopes – that things in the world of work won’t just go back to the way they were.
“I think it’s a question of what the ‘new normal’ [the way things will be day to day] is going to be,” she says. “I don’t think we want to go back to the same normal. And some companies realise this: the office is just one way of working. Remote work or flexible hours are another way of working that can be a win-win for employees, organisations, and society as a whole.”
What helps you to study and produce your best work -- and enjoy it along the way? How do you try to ‘switch off’ from your studies?
To find out more about the changing face of work since the COVID-19 pandemic and how workers can take care of their wellbeing, read this article by Dr Giurge and Dr Kaitlin Woolley.
Should we work five days a week?
American advice columnist, Ann Landers once wrote: 'Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don't recognise them'. What do you think she meant by this?
Could machines learn how to be better workers than humans?
Machine learning is all around us: on our phones, powering social networks, and helping the police, doctors and scientists. To perform certain tasks, machines follow what we call algorithms. Algorithms are sets of instructions to solve a problem. To find out how this works, take a look at the Oxford Sparks animation below:
If you would like to challenge your thinking further, take a look at this lecture by Dr Carl Benedikt-Frey (Oxford University) where he considers the potential impact of automation (use of machines to aid work) on the future of employment. Are there any similarities between what's happening now and the start of the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840)?
‘Going to work’ doesn’t just mean packing your briefcase and driving to an office or putting on a uniform and heading out to start your shift, whether that’s in a shop, restaurant or the emergency services.
It can just as easily mean walking into your living room, sitting on your sofa, and opening up your laptop or charging your phone and getting on your bike to make food deliveries.
Slowly but definitely, companies are beginning to adjust the ways we work. Some people might want to work from home every day. Others might ask to work longer hours on three weekdays so they can get the rest of the week off. There are plenty of other ways in which the usual working day from 9am to 5pm can be altered to suit people and make sure they’re happy at work.
It works out well for employers too. An extensive study from the University of Oxford in partnership with BT has found that people are 13% more productive when happy, which means they get more work done (source).
The research was conducted in the call centres of BT over a six-month period, with employees asked to rate their happiness every week. When they were happier, they worked faster by making more calls per hour and, importantly, converting more calls to sales (source).
The productive staff didn’t work any more hours than their colleagues; they were simply happier.
The Gig Economy
Not everybody works for a company though. If you’ve ever ordered a taxi or a meal via an app, you’ve probably come into contact with someone working in what’s called the gig economy. This means they work for themselves in what’s called self-employment and they pick up a piece of work from an online platform as they go. They are paid for each task they complete rather than working for someone who tells them what to do and when. Professor Jeremias Adams-Prassl, an expert on law and the future of work from Oxford University explains more about what we mean by the gig economy in the video below:
“The gig economy involves all kinds of work that is organised through online platforms such as driving for a company like Uber or cycling and delivering food for Deliveroo,” explains Professor Adams-Prassl.
“But actually the gig economy is much more than that because the digital platforms are only the tip of an iceberg. Essentially, when we talk about the gig economy, we refer to all kinds of work where you don’t have guaranteed hours, benefits, and legal protection.”
Benefits and dangers
The gig economy is not all bad. You don’t have a set number of hours you have to work meaning you can fit it around study, or playing sport, or seeing your friends, or whatever else you might want to do. You can pick up extra bits of work if you need to earn more money for a special occasion such as buying Christmas presents or saving up for a holiday.
As Professor Adams-Prassl highlights, however, there are clear dangers for people working in the gig economy. If you’re working for a company, you have a routine and know how much you will be paid and when. If the company no longer wants/needs you, then they have to give you warning so that you can prepare and potentially find a new job.
If you work for yourself in this new digital set-up, things are much more flexible – and a lot more risky. You have to manage things like your tax payments, a large proportion of workers earn much less than the minimum wage once all their expenses are paid, and you don’t have any of the protections or security as you would if you were an employee – whether it’s sick pay or annual holiday.
Professor Adams-Prassl discusses the different ways of viewing the gig economy further in the video below:
New ways of working
The coronavirus pandemic has meant that lots of people have had to find different ways of working. People haven’t been able to commute on public transport, many offices, shops and other work places have been closed and so there’s been a massive rise in the number of people working from home.
Professor Adams-Prassl suspects that will continue. He does have some worries though, and calls on employers, governments and trade unions to make sure everyone is safe and taking care of their health, whether they’re working in an office, warehouse, factory, car, or at home.
“I think we will see some long-term effects with people working from home, and that again brings a few challenges. How can we ensure protection of working standards?” he asks. “There’s a lot of clear evidence already that working from home means people work much longer hours, it’s much harder for people to switch off [and stop thinking about work].”
For example, people working from home would need to have a proper office set-up so they don’t get painful backs, sore necks, or aching eyes.
“If you worked in an office, it would be very obvious that would be the obligation of the employer to provide you with a decent chair,” he points out. “If you work from home, that’s a harder question.”
Plus, he says that young people, who will start work in the next few years, need to have just the same laws looking after them as their older friends, parents and grandparents, even if their jobs are completely different in terms of the tasks they do and the hours they work.
“The 9-5 working week as a norm might be past,” concludes Adams-Prassl, “but the standards that protected those workers shouldn’t and mustn’t be.”
Thinking about how you like to study/work, what do you think would be your ideal working week? Do you think you’d like to work from home or would you rather travel further afield?
If you would like to find out more about Dr Adams-Prassl's research, you can read the introduction to his book, 'Humans as a Service' here.
Should we work 5 days a week? Here's what our interns thought...
We asked Oxford students, Alana and Joseph, to tell us what they think about traditional working culture, their future career plans and more.
Should we work | five days a week?Vote now