On a random Wednesday in June this year, my 13-year-old cousin was not in school. This was not due to one of the many bandhs or another addition to one of the all-too-many public holidays celebrated in Nepal. Instead, every 10th grader in her school had passed the all-important School Leaving Certificate examinations – ‘Half with distinction’, she added. This is certainly quite an achievement – apparently, enough of one to give every student, 10th grader or not, the day off. Indeed, declaring a holiday for simplistic reasons has become a frequent occurrence in Nepal, to the extent that days ‘off’ sometimes feel more like the norm than days ‘on’. Yet before we raise our eyebrows at the school administration for the example they are setting for schoolchildren, we need to consider a few additional issues.
Recent political progress in Nepal, from an era of insurgency to a period of democracy and political manoeuvring, has been reflected in the country’s calendar. With the christening of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, many of the birthday-cum-holidays of the monarchs of old have been replaced with the likes of Democracy Day and Republic Day. In addition, the three-year-old secular state is now struggling to prove its multicultural credentials, a case in point being the 2009 addition of Christmas as a public holiday. Imagine all the days that could now be declared holidays if the country was to acknowledge the myriad minorities that are today asserting their rights and identities, on and off the official calendar.
Many grumble that Nepal seems to celebrate an average of one public holiday a week. Yet as recently as 2009, according to a trade magazine, Tourism Review, Nepal did not even make the short list of ten countries with the highest number of official days off. According to that list, India, with 15 public holidays during the workweek, came in at number three, trailing behind China and Egypt with 16 each. And grumblers, take note: India continues to discuss what its official weekend should look like. While private enterprises tend to take a half-day on Saturday and clock in about 50 hours a week, most government offices follow the international Monday-to-Friday 40-hour workweek. In Nepal, meanwhile, the official workweek remains 48 hours, spread over six full days, with only Saturday off.
Why Saturday? According to the Vedic week, each day is represented by a different heavenly body; under this, Saturday is ruled by Saturn and, more importantly, Sunday is ruled by the sun. As jyotisha, or Vedic astrology, considers the sun a representation of the soul, it is perhaps only appropriate that the start of the week is attuned to the soul. This would then make Saturday the end of the week. In addition, Saturn represents destruction and danger, especially of supernatural proportion, and hence could be seen as a suitable day to rest and refrain from work.
Spiritual factors aside, proponents of the long, six-day workweek have long claimed that this leads to higher productivity. In fact, there is evidence to suggest the opposite. Henry Ford, the legendary founder of the eponymous company, achieved his fame – and massively increased his fortune – when he observed workers returning rejuvenated from a longer break. Ford not only decreased the work hours at his factories from the (then) standard ten to eight a day, but also cut down the work days from six to five a week. Of course, many in the business community criticised him at the time for leading directly to thousands of hours of lost labour – a decrease of 20 hours a week per labourer is certainly not a tiny dent. But Ford defended his policy to the last, arguing that workers who returned from their two-day weekend were not only refreshed but were also able to work better and quicker, with both their hands and minds.
A two-day weekend means that rest and relaxation can be followed by a direct increase in concentration and motivation. If implemented in Nepal, this could perhaps put an end to those (perhaps exaggerated) stories of public-office staff members with dampened spirits and little work ethic, meandering into work at 11 am, taking two-hour lunch breaks and then announcing they are leaving early when the clock strikes 3 pm. Henry Ford’s insight could perhaps be best discussed with regards to Southasian schoolchildren, who are in school for a good portion of the day and then expected to continue working on homework throughout most of the evening – Nepal’s recent propensity towards new or frivolous holidays notwithstanding. Like workers, students are typically given only one day off a week – just four days a month – to catch up on everyday tasks.
During a two-day weekend, one day can be dedicated to crossing of chores from the to-do list, while a second can be used for the very real requirement of ‘recharging’ oneself. Perhaps this can include a long stroll, dinner with friends or kicking back with a good book. Of course, in today’s day and age even simply meandering aimlessly or staring off into space for a bit is looked down on by many people – unless one is on a brisk walk for the sake of exercise, perhaps. Today, so many people feel the need to be constantly productive that even the few spare minutes between meetings or lunch needs to be filled. But Joanne Cantor, a media researcher, has noted that ‘well-timed breaks to low-information environments not only restore our brain’s efficiency, they promote creativity and problem-solving.’ So regardless of what your guilty conscience might say about your ‘mindless’ relaxing, the science has shown that resting is a critical component of productivity.
Better and faster
Think of the weekend as socially and professionally acceptable time off, a time when etiquette insists that, for instance, work-related phone calls are not made. It would be a pity to hold on to an ineffective workweek followed by an inadequate weekend – for the sake of tradition or anything else.
And countries do continue to tweak their official schedule. At the turn of the millennium, for instance, Algeria shifted to a two-day weekend, over Friday and Saturday. This was done to allow for Muslim Jummah prayers on Friday without hampering access to international financial markets more days of the workweek. Bangladesh follows this same schedule, while Afghanistan takes off Thursdays and Fridays (the Kabul government explains this as an attempt to cut down on pollution in the capital). Pakistan is mulling over re-establishing the two-day weekly holiday, while Sri Lanka goes on holiday on Saturdays, Sundays and monthly Poya Days, the Buddhist full moon. Civil servants in Bhutan also get two-day weekends, though those in the private sector continue to slave away on Saturdays.
In Nepal, development agencies, businesses and the private sector are already accommodating two-day weekends, as do international schools and INGOs. Of course, the nature of the agricultural sector and way of life for farmers everywhere in the Subcontinent may mean that pre-determined ‘on’ and ‘off’ days are irrelevant. But as more people move to urban areas, knowing and practicing a delimited workweek and weekends is something the rest will eventually be forced to embrace.
Meanwhile, in the US and Europe, the discussion has moved along even farther. For several years now, companies have been experimenting with four ten-hour days, citing various environmental and social motivations. As with Henry Ford, some suggest that there is good economic sense in this, too: in 2008, for instance, government offices in the US state of Utah are said to have saved over USD 700,000 by adopting the four-day workweek. For now, though, in this region we can focus on a simpler goal: five days of work, two days outside of work – for everything else.