The sociologist Max Weber (1869–1920) first proposed the idea of a Protestant work ethic in his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. According to Weber, Protestant Christians had made work an integral part of a person’s development and, ultimately, their salvation. To work hard is to be holy. This wisdom is being challenged to some degree with a new movement to reduce the standard workweek in developed economies to four days. While scattered programs around the world have shown varying degrees of success in implementing a four-day workweek, a large-scale new experiment in Britain will include more than 3,300 workers across 70 companies in a wide range of fields.
“As we emerge from the pandemic, more and more companies are recognizing that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge,” said Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4-Day Week Global. (NPR)
In Buddhist thought, there seems to be no broad theology of work. For most Buddhists throughout history, work has simply been needed to survive. To the extent that the Buddha thought about it, he suggested that it is simply one part of what might make up a virtuous life. In the Sigālovāda Sutta (DN 31), the Buddha advised the householder Sigala on five ways to take care of workers that we can think about today. Adapted slightly to fit the modern world, these were:
(i) assigning them work according to their ability,
(ii) supplying them with wages,
(iii) offering time off for sickness,
(iv) sharing with them any rewards of growth in the business,
(v) granting them reasonable time off.
Correspondingly, there are five ways in which workers should carry out their duties to benefit their employer:
(i) they rise before their boss,
(ii) they go to sleep after him,
(iii) they take only what is given,
(iv) they perform their duties well,
(v) they uphold a good reputation.
In this way, the text says, the employer shows compassion to the employees and vice versa. The text offers relatively straight-forward advice, a sort of framework in which employers and workers would be left to determine specific details.
However, little has been written about putting this advice into practice over the last 2,500 years. Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), an American network aimed at advancing the rights of workers by drawing on religious commitments, offers only the Sigālovāda Sutta on its Buddhism page alongside a short passage from the 13th Dalai Lama and a piece by Venerable Sevan Ross, an American Zen teacher.
The advice from the 13th Dalai Lama reiterates ideals of offering a “reasonable living” and an attitude of bringing benefit rather than seeking large profits. Meanwhile, Roshi Ross teaches interconnectedness leading to “mutually productive work, with everyone being treated fairly, everyone being treated Right.” (Interfaith Worker Justice)
In the West, the Triratna Buddhist Community—Formally the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order—has put considerable thought into creating workplaces that reflect Buddhist values. Saddharaja, an order member and staff welfare officer at Windhorse:evolution, Triratna’s largest workplace, wrote in 2011:
We have a body of right livelihood experience and teaching within w:e, but my impression is that it isn’t coherently communicated and presented. Precious teachings, but not easily available. In Triratna, we have Sangharakshita’s Perfect Livelihood chapter in ‘Vision and Transformation’. There are other texts and teachings in our Movement too, but no one main source.
So this is 2011, and society continues to change apace. Some of the traditional (and Triratna) approaches to right livelihood, while completely sound, can seem to me a bit dated – they don’t reflect how we live and work now.(Triratna Buddhist Community News)
Given these limited statements and the admitted lack of a clear document on creating a workplace with Buddhist values, one might ask what a Buddhist employer is to do. Enter into this, the recent changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing movement to create a four-day workweek.
For decades, some schools and workplaces have implemented a four-day week, often out of necessity due to short staffing or particular needs in their communities. But only in the last few years have companies around the world taken notice of the shift in work hours as an opportunity to improve productivity, attract and retain key talent, and significantly reduce stress and related conditions, such as absenteeism among workers.
In a recent TED talk, Juliet Schor, an economist and professor of sociology at Boston College, stated that experiments in shortened workweeks have brought about extraordinarily positive results. One company that had seen employees quitting in large numbers due to burnout switched to the four-day workweek and quickly noticed a turn-around in retention. More than this, revenue at the company has grown, as well as customer satisfaction. Schor noted that workers developed a number of ingenious ways to fit five days’ worth of productivity into just four, from shorter meetings to cutting out small-talk and social media browsing.
Schor also noted that countries with already shorter workweeks, such as Norway and Denmark, which average just 1380 work-hours per year—the equivalent of just 34.5 40-hour weeks—actually have greater productivity than nearby countries such as the UK and Italy, which traditionally have longer workweeks and fewer vacation days. Meanwhile Japan, a nation known for overworked employees, ranked 20th out of 35 countries in a recent study of worker productivity.
However, warn scholars Emma Russell, Caroline Murphy, and Esme Terry, the move to a shorter week can also be adopted incorrectly. They point to a study of New Zealand’s experience with a four-day workweek, where managerial pressures and performance measurements were increased, piling on additional stress for workers and management. Russell, Murphy, and Terry recommend that reduced hours should also mean reduced workloads and an eye toward lowering the intensity of work. In part, they conclude: “Taking a holistic, long-term focus on the well-being of the workforce is the best path to both happiness and prosperity.” (Harvard Business Review)
To highlight the possibility of cutting down to even a 28-hour workweek composed of four seven-hour days, the Scottish recruitment agency Change Recruitment notes that around the time of Max Weber’s work, manufacturing employees in the US were working an average of 100 hours per week. After several decades and often-contentious battles, the 40-hour workweek became more commonplace.
A Buddhist case for recommending the four-day workweek might draw from one other early Buddhist text, the Soṇa Sutta (AN 6.55). In that discourse, the Buddha teaches a middle way between excessive effort and laziness. Applied to worker’s lives today, we might see that much of life, both at work and beyond, has become far more complicated than it was 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. To keep up, the average person must exert more and more effort. The benevolent Buddhist employer, seeing this, could find reason to reduce work hours and workload, thus restoring balance to the lives of employees.
One last consideration is climate impact. Last year, a study suggested that widespread adoption of the four-day workweek could reduce individual carbon footprints by as much as 20 per cent as commuting declines, and offices and other businesses reduce hours and energy consumption. In a society that has been driven by growth and consumption, it will take some work for the idea of a shorter workweek to be widely accepted. But as we see, even without this, the overall benefits of reduced hours—and potentially of workload as well—far outweigh the risks.
Kelly, John, Sawyer, Sue, and Yareham, Victoria, trans. 2013. “Sigalovada Sutta: The Buddha’s Advice to Sigalaka” (DN 31). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition).
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans. 2013. “Sona Sutta: About Sona” (AN 6.55). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition).
A big 32-hour workweek test is underway. Supporters think it could help productivity (NPR)
In Britain, a New Test of an Old Dream: The 4-Day Workweek (The New York Times)
Buddhism (Interfaith Worker Justice)
Six New Talks on Buddhist Right Livelihood Practice: new series of talks from Windhorse:evolution now available (Triratna Buddhist Community News)
The case for a 4-day work week (TED)
The Pros and Cons of a 4 Day Working Week (Change Recruitment)
What Leaders Need to Know Before Trying a 4-Day Work Week (Harvard Business Review)
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