The Case For A Shorter Workweek

Larry Price
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Wednesday - July 16, 2008
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An interesting development in the world of labor: A Japanese labor office has ruled that one of Toyota’s top car engineers died from working too many hours.

It’s the most recent decision against overwork in Japan, where the acceptance of working overtime has long been the norm.

The man was only 45 years old. Word is he had been under severe pressure as an engineer trying to develop a hybrid version of Toyota’s Camry line, working more than 80 hours overtime per month. The practice of overworking in Japan is known as karoshi, which has been a recognized workplace phenomenon since 1987. It’s the opposite of our local phenomenon, “pau hana time.”

Productivity in the workplace has long been a hot topic in labor relations. Unions have always been against long workday schedules because of fatigue, safety and long-term health-related problems. Consequently, they have often argued for shorter days.

There is a lot of evidence that compressed workweeks may benefit both employees and employers. Some concerns from management include restrictions on vacations, holidays and leave periods. Some organizations may even require vacations to be taken during slack periods. And while these are valid concerns, most organizations have been able to work out acceptable contracts with participating employees and unions.


In our global economy, some countries set their workweek at 48 hours a week, but most set it at 40. In France, it’s 35 hours. Like the United States, most European Union countries have minimum wage systems in place.

So a shorter workweek is not something new in the world of labor. The big problem has always been maintaining an acceptable level of productivity and sufficient customer services.

On another labor front, the Philippines is considering implementing a four-day workweek for all government employees in order to cut the cost of energy. The Philippine government work force totals about 2.7 million. President Gloria Arroyo favors the idea and thinks it’s possible with some thoughtful study to ensure that the new workweek would not negatively affect the economy.

Closer to home, in a yearlong experiment aimed at reducing energy costs and commuters’ gasoline expenses, Utah will become the first state to switch to a four-day workweek for its government employees. They are scheduled to work 10-hour days Mondays through Thursdays and have Fridays off. The order issued by Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman will affect about 17,000 out of 24,000 executive branch employees but will not cover state police officers, prison guards or employees of the courts or Utah’s public universities. They anticipate that for some segments of the public who need to use state services, the change will be inconvenient because they will find certain offices closed on Fridays. The longer hours will require working parents to rearrange their child care to accommodate their longer hours, and bus schedules might have to be adjusted. But for most workers, it would probably be a small price to pay.


It will be interesting to see if the private sector follows the state’s leadership.

It might be a way to save some precious taxpayer dollars. In Utah, turning off the lights, the heat and the air conditioning on Fridays in 1,000 of 3,000 government buildings is expected to save the state about $3 million a year. Additional savings on gasoline are expected to come from using official vehicles less. And finally, there is the belief that a shorter workweek will attract younger workers to the government work force. It’s a one-year experiment, so it’s worth keeping an eye on, especially with gasoline rapidly approaching $5 dollars a gallon. The only unintended consequence might be state workers using their extra day of leisure time to pursue a part-time job to earn extra money and not to play golf or go shopping.

Gov. Lingle has mentioned that she is looking into all of the benefits and ramifications of a shorter workweek. There may be a point in time where government unions will throw their considerable political influence behind the idea of a shorter workweek for a noble cause: saving taxpayers’ revenue. It’s worth a closer look.

Eventually, we may also be looking at the feasibility of conducting all government business online with most government interaction handled by robots.

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