May 20, 2020 | by Brendan Burchell

Short-time working: part of the solution to an economic and wellbeing crisis?

We’ve launched a 12-week email series for employers on work and wellbeing during – and after – the pandemic. Each short email is packed with the latest analysis and evidence-informed approaches to measure and maintain your team’s wellbeing, and offer different options for a safe, healthy, and resilient organisation. 

As part of the series, we bring together leading academics and business analysts to dig in the data and share their insights on possible solutions that could work for different organisations.


Millions of UK lives have been changed significantly in the last few weeks, even those who have not been infected by the virus. Three of the most widespread changes for many working age adults have been: 

  1. The loss of a job or a large reduction in working hours 
  2. A shift in the place of work from the employer’s premises to homeworking 
  3. Living in social isolation, alone or with other members of one’s household – adults and children – who are also spending more time at home.

We know from the literature that any one of these can have negative mental health consequences, but the combined effects of these changes is unprecedented and unexplored. There are already media reports of the strain that this is putting on individuals and families. It is likely that many of these problems will be exacerbated over the coming months. 

If levels of mental health in the population do deteriorate, it will not just cause individual misery, for instance through increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. The research to date on unemployment suggests that this will likely lead to knock on effects on the family, particularly the spouse.

It may also lead to increased breaches of social distancing rules or civil unrest. The Chancellor’s plans to save jobs through the furlough scheme are largely aimed at the financial fallout and effects of unemployment caused by the pandemic: the desire to avoid widespread hunger, destitution and financial insecurity, while also recognising the importance to overall wellbeing of the ability for businesses to recover quickly. 

Why employment matters beyond income 

As social scientists have found repeatedly, in different countries and different demographic groups, the loss of the wage only explains a small fraction of the very large mental health deficit associated with unemployment and economic inactivity. 

Marie Jahoda’s insights about the ‘incidental’ aspects of having a job such as time structure, social contact, shared goals, achievement and enforced activity are much more important for our wellbeing. And it has proven almost impossible to find substitutes for jobs that fulfil the same functions; leisure activities, voluntary work or workfare just aren’t substitutes for jobs. While some post-work utopians dream of a world where work is largely eliminated, I personally don’t see any evidence that it could exist as a reality, as can be seen in the latest ONS data which shows work has become a coping mechanism in this crisis. 

So, it seems, we have an impossible situation – for most people good mental health requires a job, but there simply aren’t enough jobs in the right sectors or with the right skill sets to go around, and this situation is likely to last for many more months of the current pandemic. 

A possible solution: short-time working

Fortunately there’s a solution to this paradox, and one that’s being taken seriously in other countries: short-time working. 

The hastily-introduced measures to protect jobs in the UK encourage employers to retain some or all staff where: 

  • there is essential work to be done, for example health and emergency workers 
  • the work can be done at home, as with many office workers 
  • the work can be done while maintaining safe distancing, such as some agricultural jobs. 

Other employees and self-employed workers will be stopped from working, and either be paid to stay at home or lose their wage too.

How does it work? 

Other European countries, such as Germany and Austria, have traditionally used short-time work programmes to deal with economic crises. 

Employers can reduce the hours of employees, typically with some compensation from public funds to mitigate some of the loss of hours. This has several benefits over the all-or-nothing job shedding being used in the UK. 

  • Employees retain their attachment to an employer and have more certainty over their future. 
  • It is easier for employers to vary their volume and type of labour power as the pandemic peaks and then we start an exit strategy. 
  • Employees can be redeployed depending on their skills, adaptability of the job to homeworking or safe-distancing, or the pre-existing health conditions of the employee. 

Turning back to the psychological functions of paid work, just how much employment is needed each week to preserve the mental health of employees, and at what point does their wellbeing drop to be closer to those who are unemployed?

Could it work in the UK?

The surprising finding from the University of Cambridge Employment Dosage team using UK and EU datasets is that increasing individuals’ hours of work from zero to just eight hours a week provides a large boost to their mental health, and there is little or no further psychological benefit as weekly hours are increased from eight to 40. 

The lesson for government strategy is clear – where possible, and with population health being the priority, give employees the choice to remain in paid work; even one day a week will keep more of us sane in these volatile times. 

The clip below was made by the Cambridge’s ‘Employment Dosage’ exploring their work on the role of employment beyond income.

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