Brendan Burchell is a fellow of Magdalene College Cambridge, and has been at the University since 1985Chiara Delpiano Cordeiro for Varsity

Coffee cups, paintings and decorative cushions on sofas. As he invites me to sit down, I realise Brendan Burchell’s personal room is a sanctuary of comfort and warmth. The room is almost at war with the cold architecture of Magdalene College, where it lies. With the room’s cosiness, my mind begins to wander away to ideas of sleep, rest, and relaxation; anything but work. Yet, it is precisely the idea of work that Brendan is interested in, telling me about his recent research: “Whenever anyone tells you something’s good for you, I think a good question to ask is how much of it is good for you? And so I thought, if paid work is good for you, what’s the optimal amount?”

“If paid work is good for you, what’s the optimal amount?”

Brendan and his team looked at people’s wellbeing and working hours, tracing how this has changed over the years. So, how often should we work to gain the full psychological benefits of labour? “What we found, from our big statistical studies, was actually even one day’s work a week seemed fine and would give you all the benefits of working,” Brendan informs me rather matter-of-factly, while I sit there listening, astounded. Following a large-scale study in 2022 involving sixty UK firms, workers had their hours reduced by twenty percent, going from a five to a four-day working week. Despite this reduced work time, “most of those sixty firms are now permanently working four days a week and doing just as much work. They’re just as productive.”

I, on the other hand, am still jittering with questions. Were these findings applicable to most jobs? Brendan was quick to answer by reassuring me the sample size was broad, yet lamented that research such as this is not always smooth sailing: “South Cambridgeshire District Council started a trial, and that was quite different, being in the public sector. Whereas the reaction to most people working four days a week was great, when it was local government, suddenly, there was some hostility, particularly from the Conservative Party and TaxPayers’ Alliance.”

“About a hundred years ago, we went from everyone working six days to working five days a week. People said at the time it would never catch on. Of course, it worked”

Intrigued by the different avenues of work Brendan’s research has explored, I begin to think about my recent experiences with work in Cambridge, having to manage deadline after deadline. What would a four-day workweek look like if applied to education? I can almost feel the NatScis and the Mathmos with Saturday lectures shaking their fists. Although Brendan admitted he had not yet “thought about how it would apply to education,” he quickly whipped out a study from his repertoire: “There is one school that was on trial that went to four days a week for the staff but not for the pupils. So effectively, they could still teach pupils the same hours, but by more careful scheduling and more careful use of time.” Yet, he explained that this only occurred due to “economic cutbacks” when schools were forced into four-day workweeks. “There’ll be one or two cases for schools, and I don’t know of any universities where they can’t afford a week for university students.” Conclusively, Brendan explains to me that although we can speculate, “until you do those experiments, you don’t know how things are going to work out.”

Perhaps it is the singular English exam placed on a date after the end of term throbbing at the back of my head, but I want to hear more than just this. So I ask, if Cambridge places so much time and effort into counselling and has intermissions in place for struggling students, wouldn’t implementing a better course structure help as well? To my surprise, Brendan agrees with me and offers a solution that involves both students and the University: “We could have a way of thinking about productivity, getting students to think about productivity, which would not involve just the students but people teaching them.”


Mountain View

Socio-economics and the complexity of the university experience

Without missing a beat, Brendan tells me how there is still room for improvement: “Obviously, everyone at Cambridge University is so busy, you would think it could never work here. I think it actually could. When I look at the way that colleges and the University run, there are a lot of things we could do better that would relieve the pressure on the students and on the academic staff, and all the other staff in the University.” A tone that was initially hesitant is now hopeful, as Brendan reflects on the past: “About a hundred years ago, we went from everyone working six days to working five days a week. People said at the time it would never catch on. Of course, it worked, and it worked really well.” With the present in mind, “we should use technology to benefit everyone [so] that we all work less, instead of using those technologies to make other people wealthier, which seems to be what happens and we get a very unequal society.”

Despite these qualms, the interview concludes with a note of hope for a more leisurable future, as Brendan explains his own experiences with the four-day workweek, which he has been able to reduce to three days: “I’ve loved it. I mean, I was gardening this morning as it was a nice day, went for a nice walk at lunchtime, and then came into Cambridge. I’m working three days a week, and I’m really enjoying it.”