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Looking for an excuse to go part time? Blame science. The ‘use it or lose it’ mantra is often trotted out to support the notion that working helps to keep our brains healthy, but new research suggests that we could all benefit from cutting our working hours once we hit 40. The ideal number of days you should work per week? Three. A study published by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, based on data from more than 6,500 men and women, has found that, whilst working for up to 25 hours per week is associated with better performance on cognitive tasks, longer working weeks are linked to poorer performance. The real kicker? Those working more than 60 hours a week exhibit poorer cognitive functioning than those who don’t work at all.
The study’s authors believe that work can stimulate brain activity, making it beneficial up to a point, but that the stress and fatigue induced by long hours can be detrimental and, at extreme levels, cancel out any positive impact. “Full time work (40 hours a week) is still better than no work in terms of maintaining cognitive functioning, but it is not maximising the positive effects of work,” the University of Melbourne’s Colin McKenzie told The Guardian.
For those who can’t afford to cut their hours, hope may be on the horizon. Last week, Jeremy Corbyn agreed to discuss proposals for shortening the UK working day to six hours, in response to positive results from European trials. Swedish companies trialling the scheme have benefited from increases in productivity and worker satisfaction, along with decreases in absenteeism. Six out of ten bosses in the UK are said to be in favour of the scheme, with Agent Marketing in Liverpool becoming the first UK company to adopt the model, switching its working hours from 8.30am-5.30pm to 9am-4pm (with a mandatory one hour lunch break) this year.
Last year, an Oxford academic added fuel to the fire with his declaration that forcing staff to begin work before 10am was “tantamount to torture”, arguing that British working hours are out of sync with our bodies’ natural circadian rhythms, and have created a “sleep deprived society”. Sleeping for less than 6 hours per night for just a single week has been found to impact gene function in at least 711 different ways.
Can’t afford to cut your hours, or to wait for your boss to sign off on a 6 hour working day? Why not ask your employer if you can work from home one or two days a week? You don’t need to be a parent or carer – all UK employees now have the legal right to request flexible working, which has been found to decrease stress levels and boost job satisfaction.