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Khalid Al Ameri: Should the UAE have six-hour workdays?
October 12, 2015
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Sweden has recently hit the headlines for moving to a six-hour workday versus the traditional eight-hour workday, which is the global standard. To start with, I think it’s important to understand why we work eight hours in the first place. During the industrial revolution when companies wanted to maximise the output of products, factories working all the time was key. It was normal for an individual to work for up to 16 hours a day.

It wasn’t until 1817 when a social reformer named Robert Owen pushed a policy to have eight-hour workdays. He coined the now famous slogan “Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” It’s kind of crazy to think that there has been no change to the standard eight-hour workday in almost 200 years.

The aim of Sweden’s shortened workday policy is two-fold: the first obvious reason is for people to enjoy more of a private life with their families and loved ones. The second reason is to boost productivity; yes, you read that right.

The first reason for shorter working hours is pretty obvious; with more time to yourself you can focus on your family, your personal well-being and enjoy new experiences. The productivity argument however might be a little harder for us to swallow. The theory goes that with shortened workdays employees will be more focused, have less distractions, and meetings will be kept to a minimum. At the end of the day they still have to produce the same results in a shortened amount of time. Furthermore since employees now have more time to themselves they will be happier and more motivated during their time at work.

So should the UAE adopt a six-hour workday? I think we should, and here’s why.

Currently the UAE has not built a unique work culture centred on employees due to the nature of our diverse demographics. We believe Emiratis just need standard jobs versus long-term careers in order to maintain quotas and socio-economic interests. Then there is a belief that expats are only here for a certain amount of time and then will either return home or move on to a more lucrative opportunity. This has led to minimum investments by organisations into building a culture at work that cares about employees beyond their time in the office.

It’s important to be clear that I’m talking about more than offering employees “Yoga Mornings” on a Monday. That’s certainly a start but by developing a six-hour workday companies in the UAE will send a message that they care about their employees’ well-being. In addition it will show that employers are starting to be more innovative and respectful with employees’ time during work. We might even see investments by employers into spaces that allow employees to feel like they are in an environment where they can do great work.

The second reason for a six-hour workday is returning to the family values that the UAE was built on. When I was in school my mom used to pick my brothers and I up on her way home from work. She finished early enough to do that. Believe it or not there were days when my father would arrive home before we had arrived for school. Lunch was the main meal of the household, where families gathered to eat, talk, and enjoy time together. Today we’re lucky enough if we are able to have dinner with our families.

We discuss the building and maintaining of family values at a national level, however working hours continue to increase. Furthermore certain expectations around a culture of staying later at work is making family building less and less possible. I’m all for working harder and smarter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean working longer.

In a TED talk by Jason Fried titled “Why work doesn’t happen at work” he argues that time in the office is where we are least productive due to the distractions of managers, meetings, lunches, or fellow colleagues passing by to chat. I bet if most of us were to add up all the time wasted on unnecessary tasks versus the time doing impactful work at the office we would already be below the six-hour workday. Most of us have to leave the office to get actual work done, such as at home, in coffee shops or, even worse, while on holiday.

Lastly from a health and well-being perspective. During an evening in our majlis a young member of my family walked in late from work. He was visibly exhausted and stressed. During a discussion later that evening elder members talked about young workers today being less and less healthy, specifically on the increased stress they see every day. To them stress related issues were not as prevalent in the past. Examples such as unhealthy eating, stress related alopecia, and grey hairs at a younger age. It was described in an interesting and somewhat funny way by a retired relative who said, “We are starting to look older at a younger age.”

I believe that a healthy society is a productive society. Eventually people who are pushed at a certain pace for long enough will eventually burn out. We need a work culture that puts human resources first, that ensures they are taken care of and show up day in and day out in the best of health.

A great book titled Stuffocation by James Wallman discusses how to live with less consumption and focus on experiences. In the book the author describes a time in American history during the 1920s where an economist named John Maynard Keynes and an industrialist, W. K. Kellogg, opted for cutting people’s work hours, thereby producing fewer goods and leaving more time for leisure.

On the other hand leaders such as President Herbert Hoover wanted people to consume more, in order for people to consume more others would have to work more. You see by looking at the world around you which group won the argument. Having said that in today’s world we are seeing more and more countries adopt new metrics to validate the health of their economies, metrics that include the happiness and health of their people that the Kingdom of Bhutan made famous with their decision to develop Gross National Happiness (GNH) versus Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In the end everyone wants to feel that they have a life beyond their work, with the overall outcome of being able to experience the amazing things life has to offer while at the same time give back to their country, communities, and families. With the aim of building a culture of happiness in our country more time for individuals and families to enjoy more meaningful experiences would go a long way.

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The author is a columnist on education and youth development.

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