A study, possibly not a particularly rigorous one, has found that, for peak mental health benefits, we should work just one day a week.
The study found that the risk of mental health problems reduced by 30% when people did work of eight hours or less per week. One day of employment is the most ‘effective dose’ in order to provide the mental health benefits of paid work.
The study found that the risk of mental health problems reduced by 30% when people moved from unemployment or stay-at-home parenting into paid work of eight hours or less per week.
However, the findings showed no evidence that working more than eight hours provided further boosts to mental health.
Sociologists at the universities of Cambridge and Salford conducted the research amid concerns over the rise of automation technology, which may lead to shorter working hours for everyone.
The researchers used data from a survey of more than 70,000 UK residents between 2009 and 2018 to examine how changes in working hours were linked to mental health and life satisfaction.
“We have effective dosage guides for everything from vitamin C to hours of sleep in order to help us feel better, but this is the first time the question has been asked of paid work,” said study co-author Dr Brendan Burchell, a sociologist from the university.
“We know unemployment is often detrimental to people’s wellbeing, negatively affecting identity, status, time use, and sense of collective purpose.
“We now have some idea of just how much paid work is needed to get the psychosocial benefits of employment – and it’s not that much at all.”
The study’s findings were published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
Fears that an increase in automation could lead to many jobs becoming redundant has led to policy discussions over how to support the unemployed in a future with limited work.
The debate has included discussions over universal basic income and retraining workers who are currently in jobs that could be replaced by automation.
“In the next few decades we could see artificial intelligence, big data and robotics replace much of the paid work currently done by humans,” said Dr Daiga Kamerade, the study’s author from the University of Salford.
“If there is not enough for everybody who wants to work full-time, we will have to rethink current norms.
“This should include the redistribution of working hours, so everyone can get the mental health benefits of a job, even if that means we all work much shorter weeks.”
Researchers also suggested some policy options for transitioning into a future with limited work, such as “five-day weekends”, working just two hours a day, or increasing annual holiday from weeks to months.
Dr Burchell added: “If the UK were to plough annual productivity gains into reduced working hours rather than pay rises, the normal working week could be four days within a decade.”
Dr Jed Boardman, lead for social inclusion at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “We know that unemployment is bad for mental health and wellbeing, and that being in work can be good for you.
“But being in jobs with low levels of control, high demands and complexity, job insecurity, and unfair pay can be as bad for a person’s mental health as unemployment,” he added.
“This high-quality study reinforces what we already know, but suggests that reduction of working hours can have benefits for people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
Last month, the think tank Autonomy also suggested a major reduction in working hours to tackle climate change. Its research argued for work hours to be reduced to nine hours a week to cut carbon emissions.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, has also previously indicated that Labour could consider a pledge to introduce a four-day week in its manifesto for the next general election.