Jane Austen once wrote that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Well, a more recent universal truth is that a bank holiday without damp, wet conditions would not be a bank holiday. It seems the price workers pay for enjoying an extra weekday off work is the most miserable of weather that hardly inspires meaningful activities for the extra day of freedom.
The UK usually enjoys eight bank holidays every year, with a large bulk based around Christmas and Easter. In 2022, an extra day off will be available to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee on the throne. This is a significant disparity compared to Spain (14 bank holidays), Sweden and France (11) and Colombia and India (18).
When it comes to trends of bank holidays, the UK is far down the rung of flexibility.
Why are bank holidays so important? Because they provide workers with the opportunity to have time away from their form of employment. Even those who love their work and enjoy a decent wage must recognise that sometimes time apart from work is healthy. Indeed, the three day weekend from a Bank Holiday (the day off usually falls on a Monday) offers that period of relaxation. There is a greater opportunity to visit family and loved ones. During the pandemic, the infectious nature of Covid demanded time away from those we love. Bank Holidays offer the very opposite of this.
With the volatile, uncertain nature of work, not least because of globalisation, Brexit and Covid, is it time for more Bank Holidays? The Labour Party certainly think so. Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour pledged to introduce UK-wide bank holidays for the patron saints of the four component nations. Seen as both patriotic and worker friendly, it was a policy that was perhaps one of the few sparks of innovation when Labour was otherwise unable to get a hearing during the turbulent Brexit years.
Arguments against extra bank holidays often rest on the question of productivity. The belief is that a greater volume of bank holidays would result in less work being completed and the nation’s economic prospects declining. However, this is not inevitable. Over centuries, the number of hours worked in the UK has declined despite productivity increasing. If people have a shorter period of time in which to do something, they are less likely to become distracted. Similarly, working for too long could decrease cognitive judgement, due to tiredness, and therefore increase the likelihood of errors. Long working hours don’t necessarily mean high productivity.
Indeed, if the productivity of a country is measured by its economic output, bank holidays are far from a hindrance at this. According to the BBC, a 2018 study showed a bank holiday delivered an extra £253 in profit to small shops, with families having time off from the work perhaps engaging in a form of retail therapy.
Bank holidays existing perhaps alongside higher wages could also help the economy. The New Economics Foundation found that increasing consumer spending power through higher wages could offer incentives for boosting productivity. Before the financial crisis in 2008, Britain increased its productivity by around 2% per year but this has since reduced to 0.7%, according to the Guardian.
Increasing the number of bank holidays alone might not be radical enough. There is a murmuring, but growing, call in the media about proposals for a four day week. Friday to Sunday would become the new weekend, with employers spending an extra day with their families. In Iceland, for example, a four day week improved well being, with high productivity still remaining.
It is not just countries trying four day weeks but companies. Microsoft found that productivity was boosted by 40% following the closure of their offices on a Friday in August 2019. Productivity shot up by 39.9% compared to August 2018. This came alongside a 30 minute limit on meetings being imposed to try and reduce time wasting.
All these studies would suggest that extra time off work makes the work itself feel less like a chore and more like something to be celebrated. With all the problems facing governments at the moment, domestically and overseas, ripping up a long term model of work in exchange for something new might not seem like a top priority.
Yet governments should have every incentive to want these changes to take place. Both extra bank holidays and a four day week have, in numerous studies, found to increase productivity and offer more time for workers with their families. Increased productivity means a stronger economy, while spending time with loved ones is likely to improve the mental health of citizens.