Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Capping Working Hours

Recently, the scandalous decisions of some investment banks to treat their employees like human beings by suggesting they take Friday nights and Saturdays off has raised much debate amongst financial journalists and their ilk.
The issue of long working hours is not limited to investment banks; a survey in the US of 1000 professionals by Harvard Business School found that 94% worked fifty hours or more a week, and for almost half, working hours averaged over 65 hours a week. With the increase of automisation in production chains moving labour into customer facing service roles, more individuals will likely face this challenge in their daily lives.
There are good reasons to think that these hours are not useful at all. Economists have long known that as working hours increase, the marginal production of workers fall – mistakes increase and the quality of work produced falls.
More importantly than the impacts on productivity however, are morally relevant considerations that are related to cultures of long working hours:
Industries with long working hours are typically biased in favour of those who do not have other commitments which limit their available time – most notably child care and currently, in our society, this means women. Economist Claudia Goldin finds that gender gaps in wages are greatest in those industries which exhibit “non-linear pay structures” – essentially those in which individuals who can work extremely long hours are disproportionately rewarded. This describes most jobs in the corporate, financial and legal worlds.
There are important health implications of longer working hours with significant evidence that those who work longer than 48 hours a week on a regular basis are “likely to suffer an increased risk of heart disease,stress related illness, mental illness, diabetes and bowel problems.”
Finally there are various employment related issues worth considering – for example would unemployment be decreased if each 100 hour-per-week job were split into two of 50? Would such a policy help reduce the concentration of power in organisations as key managerial tasks would likely have to be increasingly shared?
While our society may gain significantly from moving away from working long hours, it will always be incredibly difficult for any firm to act unilaterally in this matter due to substantial co-ordination failures in this area.
The appropriate response, I believe, is for Government to intervene with a hard cap of 48 hours per week that applies across almost all industries, with no built in exceptions beyond those which are absolutely essential. The current EU working times directive which is supposed to provide a similar function, is farcical in its ability to constrain individuals from working, due to the amount of exceptions and opt out clauses built into it.
A hard cap of 48 hours would be hard to implement, would have some uncomfortable implications (for example – forcing individuals who enjoy their jobs to go home and stop working) and would likely have some negative consequences on the economy. However there would seem to be substantial positive gains to be made and I believe that these are large enough to justify developing such a cap.

*Update: Marxist economist, Chris Dillow, has an excellent post describing how problems like long working hours can naturally arise without actually benefiting anyone.


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  1. Will, as I am completely with you on the normative issue, let me raise some points about realizability. I think there are (at least) two broad areas of questions there.
    First, enforceability. Many of the jobs in question are such that you can work from everywhere, by taking a laptop with you and having an internet connection. Moreover, you can think about your job even in times when your employer blocks internet access to its systems (I know of someone writing emails in word files on Sundays, because her employer would indeed not allow access to the company's email system on weekends, and then copy & paste them into the program when it was unlocked on Monday mornings). We might run into problems about privacy and the necessity of making "intrusive judgments" (in Anderson's terms – from her critique of luck egalitarianism).
    Second, the mentality and the culture standing behind such long working hours. Some would maybe say that it is "capitalism", with its competitive pressures, that is at the root of things. I wonder whether this is all, however. There also seems to be a fetishization of working hours, even of lack of sleep in some circles, that seems to stem from a deep desire to receive recognition and to confirm one's own worth (as if one only were a valuable human being if one worked at least 60 hours a work). But of course this leads to rat races, and it contradicts everything science knows about physical and mental well-being and efficient work (as you point out). So the question would be how this culture could be changed (which could help with the enforcement issue as well).

  2. Hi Will, thanks for raising this important issue. I think it is worth stressing that individuals who engage in very long working hours are not only likely to harm themselves but, arguably, are sometimes not doing so fully voluntarily. Some may have no acceptable alternatives, or face a lot of psychological pressure, or very high transition costs if they were to change field/jobs.

  3. Enforceability is where this policy would become difficult. Realistically I would see it as a policy which gathered support over a period of time and relied on some degree of cultural change beforehand.

    I do believe that institutions and laws shape culture though – one of the central purposes of this policy would be to attack this rat race culture (and maybe force people to find other means of confirming their own worth). I think initial rule breaking / non-compliance would be expected, the question would be would this still exist to a significant extent 10 years after the policy was implemented?

    In terms of policies for enforcement – significant fines, whistle-blower policies and an independent arbiter who performed checks and followed up on complaints (perhaps a more empowered trade union-esque body), would be some obvious places to start. Anything more would I agree be overly intrusive – even whistle-blowing is something I would be uncomfortable with.

  4. Yes, institutions and laws can shape culture. In this particular case, however, I am not so sure (and would love to see empirical data if there are any). If you compare Germany and the UK, the legal regulations are much stricter in the former. But at least in certain industries the expectations about working hours seem to be quite similar. If you want cultural change, you might need other means as well. For example, I wonder what effect the mandatory closing of shops on Sundays has. This creates an atmosphere of Sundays really being "days off", which might affect even very hard-working individuals.
    Another aspect are individuals who have two or more jobs. This group might also include many individuals for whom the high working hours are involuntary, as Anca has mentioned.

  5. Will, thanks for the post. Like the others, I have sympathy with the proposal, but I want to test the grounding a little. It seems to me that there are two types of cases: (1) those who voluntarily work long hours; (2) those who do so because they must. And two types of problems: (a) harms to self (such as health problems); (b) wider impacts (such as effect on gender employment balance). If that is the structure, a difficulty with the proposal looks to be between the problems and solutions. My sense is that 1 and 1a are not things we want to legislate against in liberal society. Think of what a moral principle condoning that would imply for regulating food consumption, dangerous sports (inc. your own favourite!!), and so forth. 2a and b seem genuine problems, but it is not clear capping workers hours would be a good response: for 2, it would remove one of the few sources of income they can access; for b, surely things like subsidised child care would be a better response (partly because it addresses the problem without restricting choice, partly because it is more catch-all). It does not follow from the above that capping working hours might not be a good idea – if the economic reasoning you suggest plays out, there seems to be a reason. But would be interested to hear a little more on whether the moral reasons you offer really do reach this conclusion.

  6. Thank you very much for this very interesting post, Will. I think this issue deserves much more attention than it tends to receive. This is well illustrated by the wide range of different types of concerns (ethical/self-regarding, moral/other-regarding, economic) that you point to. Among the moral concerns, narrowly understood, that you consider are the effect of long working hours on gender disparities and employment levels (i.e. the number of available jobs). Setting these issues aside, I am curious whether you think there is a responsibility to limit one's work independently of whether long hours prevent people from being able to enter the labor market (or reaching certain positions). To be more specific: Assume, purely hypothetically, that people employed in a certain specific industry were generally equally able, but of different willingness, to work long hours, and people whose preferences led them to work long hours contributed to an upward shift in time commitments expected by employers. Would people with a preference to work 48 hours have a moral complaint against those working more?

  7. I very much agree with your latter points – there may indeed be better ways to address issues 2a and 2b. However it is issue 1b that worries me the most and I do not agree with your dismissal of it.

    I think Liberals need to be very worried about co-ordination failure in society (I really recommend the Chris Dillow piece above). I believe it is quite simple to describe multiple alternative states of the world, of how things could be, which would increase societies freedom (or whatever qualities which you wish to maximise), but are unobtainable as they require coordinated action.

    I believe a world in which work was limited would be one where individuals were more free – similar to how classical liberals tried to carve a sphere into which government could not reach, I would introduce the same constraints on our economic system.

    Forcing people to be free?

  8. I think they would yes. Especially as that number creeps significantly higher into the late 50's and beyond, it is very well possible that this impinges on their ability to lead a fulfilling and satisfying life, whereas I think it would be hard to make the case in the other direction.

    Ultimately my objection to long working hours boils down to believing, perhaps crudely, for those who desire them (as opposed to those forced into them), it is a preference, but not one on which the fulfilment of their life truly depends upon. Whereas as competition forces more and more people into a 'long hours or unemployment' equilibria, those who would resist this could legitimately claim to have their lives significantly diminished.

  9. Not sure I follow your reply here, Will. As I understand it, there could be two issues of co-ordination that concern you. One is the co-ordination issue involved in enacting, e.g., a policy offering extra child support. I do not see how that would be majorly any more difficult than enacting a cap on working hours. An alternative co-ordination issue would be getting people to reduce working hours, which, I think, is what the Dillow piece raises as a co-ordination issue. But my point does not concern that co-ordination. My point was that it looks as if the ethical issues you raise are not best addressed by capping working hours. If that is correct the second co-ordination problem is not, in fact, a problem (at least not with this goal in mind). Or am I missing your point?

  10. Sorry, thought of one more possibility. I guess the thought could be that people working less hours would make them more free, but without a cap, they cannot do that. I see that co-ordination problem, but it would require focus on working long hours being a problem of unfreedom. I am not sure your post says anything to that end?

  11. I think this asymmetry is crucial for the normative case. Nonetheless, in an ideal world, what you'd want is a "rich ecosystem" (don't remember where I first heard this term) of different jobs, with different working hours, and lots of variety with regard to other characteristics. But this is very hard to realize, which is why I'm with you that an enforced cap can get us to a better equilibrium than unregulated competition.

  12. Will, thank you for the post. I'd like to press Andrew's last point further. The problem you point to is that leaving working hours unregulated leads to a situation where people who do not have a preference for working more are coerced to work long hours as they don’t have other reasonable alternatives. Do you find this situation in itself problematic? i.e. that a group’s preference is imposed on others ? Or is it only so because what is at stake here is one’s ability to choose what to do with their free time, crucial you seem to suggest for living a fulfilling life. If it is the latter, are we then to think of free time as a primary good to be fairly distributed among individuals?
    In such a case and in response to Florian, one could still answer that individuals have no such obligation to work less but that labor laws should be organized in such a way that allows people to choose how to spend their free time. In the same way, for instance, as we would allow people to work harder and make more money but tax their income in line with principles of fair distribution. But I am reluctant to think that the two situations are analogous. There seems to be something different between imposing taxes and imposing “free time”. Any thoughts on why we seem to have this intuition?

  13. Excellent post, Will. I have one thought that I'd be interested to hear your opinion of. I think that there may be different ways in which we could cap working hours that may be more or less attractive. As an illustration of this, let's consider two possibilities. The first says that workers' hours should be capped such that they are prohibited from working more than, say, 40 hours a week. It is an employee-focused policy. The second says that employers are prohibited from offering contracts that require workers to work for more than, say, 40 hours a week. It is an employer-focused policy. The second policy seems more attractive to me since it would not prohibit workers from taking on extra work (say, at a different company) but it would restrict employers from exercising duress over workers. Perhaps this propsal would get around some of Andrew's worries also.

    Now, I'm not claiming that this solution is perfect; there may certainly be decisive objections to it. Rather, my point is that we could think more expansively about how such a cap could be implemented and this could help us get around some of the objections outlined.

  14. My sense is that Will is trying to capture and critique an ambiguity within (1), i.e., the case of those who voluntarily work long hours. [The distinction between (1) and (2) is really important, and warrants much discussion – and I think that Tom's suggestion may have something to offer in this regard.] Voluntariness, and the conditions by which it can be ascribed to an action, is a tricky issue; but it looks like there should be more than the two options: not just cases of (genuinely) voluntary long working hours and necessary long working hours. Some may 'voluntarily' work hours (i.e., they take a job and satisfy its necessary requirements), even if they know that, say, the hours worked over 48p/w have a negative impact on various other aspects of their lives (health, relationships and relational goods, meaningfulness, fulfilment, mental health, etc.); and part of this is likely to be due to the culture of such professions, which may (over time) be changed so as to be brought more into alignment with these people's (real) interests, if a cap were put in place.

  15. Lisa – that is exactly my way of thinking. A first best solution would be a plurality of choices, however the nature of the market is to settle around a few focal points. That being the case I think a cap is a better solution than we have at present.

  16. Siba – I agree with your initial analysis. Free time is certainly a primary good and that is why choices of working hours should not be imposed on one group by another. One groups preferences imposed on anothers per se is not fantastic, but an inevitable trade off in a market system which I think we have to find acceptable (See: Justin Bieber).

    I'm not sure I follow completely on the second paragraph. Perhaps you could expand on it?

  17. My thinking runs something along the following lines:

    Freedom requires a reasonable range of options available for someone to choose from. By some groups (genuinely) voluntarily choosing to work long hours, they restrict significantly the choice set for others, so that while they may be choosing to work long hours rather than say working 48 hour working weeks and never getting promoted, their freedom is still limited.

    If we were placed in a veil of ignorance scenario I think it would be reasonable that people were more worried about being people pressured into working long hours, than being a person who was forced to stop working. (Lisa's mention of asymmetry below captures this perfectly for me.)

    More directly: Tom – I could not accept an employer focused contract because I don't think it addresses the issue I am most concerned about as it would be far too easy for aspects like culture to pressure workers into longer hours anyway.

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