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Live to Work or Work to Live? Will four-day weeks, optimal sleep hours and shorter school days promote productivity?


Sleep controls our mood, mental health, mindset, socialisation, work ethic, appetite, metabolism, hormone regulation, immunity, and life expectancy. The list goes on. Yet, society prioritises productivity over a healthy night’s slumber. The traditional 9-5 workday and 9-3 school day remain the mainstream structure of the average week, despite the knowledge that this timeframe actively deprives us of sleep. Everyone is so used to feeling tired every day from society’s regimented routine that we rarely come to question it. Why should this be the case?  Research, findings, and practice have been circulated widely for many years now exploring the beneficial alternatives to the traditional working week and school start times. 

According to the NHS, children aged 6-12 years need “9 to 12 hours” sleep and teenagers aged 13-18 years need “8 to 10 hours” sleep. Most adults need around 8 hours of sleep to function normally during the day. ‘Dreams’, the UK’s top bed retailer, wrote in their online ‘Sleep Matters Club’ that “In 1942, 8 hours of sleep was the norm, now 6.8 is the average.” 

The NHS explains that:

“The cost of all those sleepless nights is more than just bad moods and a lack of focus. Regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, coronary heart disease and diabetes – and it shortens your life expectancy. It’s now clear that a solid night’s sleep is essential for a long and healthy life.”

The work and school week schedule assumes that the hours spent at home will be rest hours. This is completely unrealistic for the average household. Adult’s face what has recently been coined as ‘life admin’ outside of work, this includes but is not limited to, food shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare, family commitments, appointments, budgeting etc. For young people, a large chunk of time at home is spent doing homework and further studying. Additionally, teenagers may also have a part-time job to earn money after school hours. Both adults and young people are also constantly reminded of the importance of practising hobbies, doing regular exercise, and having social time with friends, daily, to maintain a healthy work/life balance. More pressing commitments and the pressure to be organised for the next day often make it impossible to squeeze these beneficial activities into the few hours spent at home before clocking off for bedtime. As a result, many of us fill these hours with the most demanding tasks, in an attempt to get the most done for the oncoming days, right up until our heads hit our pillows. It is no surprise then that the NHS reports that, “1 in 3 of us suffers from poor sleep, with stress, computers and taking work home often blamed.” We often joke with each other that ‘there aren’t enough hours in the day’ for us to complete everything on our to-do lists to even get the chance of moving on to our wish lists. It appears that somewhere along the way, society’s working regime overtook general living on the priority scale. 

It is scientifically proven that teenagers have a different circadian rhythm than adults. Their sleep and wake patterns are biologically set so they don’t feel tired until later in the evenings and this clashes with having to wake up early for school starts. Children are legally required to attend school in the UK until they are sixteen, therefore, there is no choice involved in this situation. Students do not have the freedom to decide what time of day they walk through the school gates, if they did their attendance record would suffer. Likewise, the majority of working adults cannot afford to look for more flexible work or reduce their hours with food to buy and bills to pay. Sleep deprivation and life imbalance are unavoidable, enforced by the strict timeline implementing our days. It feels so outdated, especially when there is so much proof that it causes our health to suffer. Everyone is tired. Pandemic living has highlighted how accelerated the pace of ‘normal’ living is. I know many who feel overwhelmed at the thought of our days speeding up once more to reach the unattainable velocity they once were. The pressures and deadlines and structure of daily work and school week living, quite simply, feel too much. People have only realised this after the world was forced to slow down. It seems redundant that we remain on this hamster wheel of routine when it comes to the typical school and work week whilst the game-changing countries have recognised the data and edited their schedules accordingly for quite some time now.

When we look at the countries that have altered their societal structures, the success rates are off the charts. Finland has been known for years to be thriving with their schooling system. Pupils only spend a handful of hours at school, the Education in Finland website also states that “according to the OECD, Finns have the most democratic amount of school homework in the world. On average, their homework takes about half an hour a day.” Finnish schools are not grade based, instead they focus on covering as much information as possible:

“An educational approach is to prepare children for their future life, but not for exams. That is why classes are mainly focused on developing practical skills and there are no exams (the only exam they need to pass is the exam before university, taken at the age of 19).”

The quality of teaching and wellbeing of students are at the heart of Finland’s education system, and this pays off as Finnish schools are still considered the best in the world. 

In 2013, a school in London became the first in England to allow students to start at 10 am and remain in class until 5.30 pm. However, it is not clear if this schedule has remained in place over the years and unfortunately no mass movement of altered school start times was kickstarted after this school’s introduction. 

In 2019 MP’s held a debate when a petition reached more than 179,000 signatures for school start times in England to be changed from 9 am to 10 am. The change was rejected with the Department of Education stating that the government has given every school the ability to change their school hours, days and opening and closing times. So, the decision lies with the headteachers at each school. Another petition was raised again in 2020 but was rejected under the same reasoning and that any requests for school hour requirements being imposed should be taken to the Department of Education directly, not parliament. So apparently, later school starts can be obtained, but there isn’t a lot of specificities provided on how students and parents can bring this about. The lack of interest from governing bodies doesn’t feel much different from continuously being put on hold when trying to make a phone call, passed from operator to operator. It is unclear if and when schools in the UK will ever be made to change their start times, and if students will ever get to benefit from that much needed extra time in their morning. 

When we look at the world of work, Iceland’s employment levels consistently remain as one of the highest in the world, currently standing at 80% as of last year. A trial to shorten the working week down to four days in the country was reportedly met with ‘overwhelming success’ in July 2021. It was reported after the findings were released that 86% of workers are now contracted shorter working weeks or guaranteed the right to shorten their hours if they choose. Many other countries are currently following suit with trials or making plans to. Currently, a pilot project in the UK has been launched in a bid to obtain that far off dream of a four-day working week. The 4 Day Week Campaign outlines their standpoint:”The UK works longer hours than most of Europe.

“It is not making us more productive. It is making us stressed, overworked, and burnt out. It is time for a 4 – day week.”

They explain: “We invented the weekend a century ago and are long overdue for a four-day working week which would benefit workers, employers, the economy, our society and our environment.” Over thirty companies are taking part in this pilot scheme, with other pilots running in Ireland, Canada, America, and New Zealand. The scheme will be studied by Oxford University, Boston College, and Cambridge University researchers. 

The 4 Day Week Campaign trusts that:

 “Together we can build a society where we work to live, rather than live to work.”

 If the results are anything like the trial in Iceland, we can be hopeful that the long-awaited change for people’s wellbeing and work-life balance is closer than it ever was before. 


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