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Has The Time Arrived for Four Day Workweeks?

An unexpected consequence of the pandemic has been the facilitation of an ongoing conversation on how, when, and where we work. The experience of being confined at home led many to reassess professional priorities, especially those related to work-life balance.

Numerous pilot projects have presented a compelling case for why the adoption of a four-day workweek could help alleviate workplace stress, increase productivity, and allow for a better quality of life. As this idea gains steam in public consciousness, let’s explore where we stand in the roadmap to four-day workweeks.

How did we get here?

Not long ago, a typical workweek lasted 6 days, often with longer workdays, and Sundays being left open for church, rest, and family. Two factors were key to the transition away from this norm: organized labor support and corporate adoption.

Through strikes, workers were able to collectively fight for more liveable schedules. In 1872, print workers in Toronto took to the streets to fight for a novel new idea: 9-hour workdays. Across the border in Chicago, an 1886 demonstration took place with the rallying call of “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.”

By the mid-1920s, it was large companies pushing for changes. Henry Ford introduced 5-day, forty-hour workweeks at his company, leading to an increase in productivity, employee retention, as well as more time to purchase Ford products. This change was adopted nationally in the United States through the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 and legislated in Canada shortly after.

Are we still happy at Work?

The normalization of five day, forty-hour workweeks remained mostly unchallenged for the majority of the 20th century. Yet, data on workplace stress, fatigue, and balance have many wondering whether change is necessary.

Even before the pandemic, in a 2017 study, 58% of Canadians stated they were feeling overworked. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index found that more than 50% of Canadian workers reported feeling stressed, higher than the global average. Finally, a recent national work-from-home survey found that Canadians, working from home over the past two years, have experienced more burnout, irritation, physical discomfort, and work-life conflict than they were pre-pandemic.

With the pandemic amplifying workplace unhappiness, it’s more important than ever that we explore alternatives to the ways we work. A four-day workweek is an idea that has the backing of many Canadians.

  • A 2020 Angus Reid survey found that 53% of Canadians felt a four-day workweek was a good idea, up from 6% in 2018, conversely, only 22% of respondents found it to be a bad idea, down 9%.

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So what is the four-day workweek?

Simply put, the four-day workweek refers to an arrangement for a compressed schedule or reduced hours where work is conducted over the course of four days instead of five.

The onus would be left to adopting companies, organizations, or institutions, in conjunction with employees, to decide how best to restructure work schedules.

What have the case studies and pilot projects found?

The idea of a four-day workweek is not new, but the last few years have seen a number of trials and case studies show almost unanimously positive results.

The most comprehensive pilot project took place in Iceland, among 2500 workers working in a number of sectors – from daycare workers to police officers, with results being presented this year.

Over four years, the trial found employees exhibited “greater well-being, improved work-life balance, and a better co-operative spirit in the workplace — all while maintaining existing standards of performance and productivity.” On top of this, parents reported having more quality time for their children.

Some companies have also initiated their own trials.

  • Microsoft Japan tested out a four-day workweek, seeing a 40% increase in productivity and a 23% lower electricity bill.
  • Meanwhile, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company switched its 240 staff to four-day workweeks in 2017. They found no drop in total amount of work achieved, a decrease in stress from 45% to 38% and a 24% increase in perceived work-life balance.

In Canada, a number of smaller trials have taken place in municipal settings.

  • The municipality of Guysborough, Nova Scotia and their 60 full-time employees tested out a four-day workweek starting in 2020. The municipality’s chief administrative officer noted the experiment was positively received by staff who “see the advantages of having that extra day.” The municipality also saw a substantial decrease in sick days taken, and recently made the change to four-day workweeks permanent.
  • Another similar trial has taken place in the rural township of Zorra, Ontario where 14 municipal staff have been taking part in an eight-month test, working 8.75 hours over four days.

The benefits are clear, but questions remained unanswered.

The case for a four-day workweek speaks for itself. At the employee level, trials have highlighted an increase in work-life balance, a decrease in stress, and more time for family and hobbies.

At the organizational level, productivity has increased, while micro advantages due to four-day workweeks have been discovered, including less employee burnout, fewer taken sick days, and a reduction in overhead costs.

However, more trials among more industries are needed for a comprehensive picture to be painted. Four-day workweeks might not be suitable for all job types, such as construction and computer programming which require intense concentration. On top of this, some employees might not have lifestyles conducive to longer working days. Finally, questions of how changes to workweeks might impact a company’s insurance and benefits plans persist.

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Where are we on the roadmap to four-day workweeks?

Unions continue to be some of the biggest proponents of four-day workweeks. In Iceland, their successful trial was facilitated a nearly 90% unionization rate in the country. In contrast, a similar campaign in Canada might be unlikely as less than 28% of workers are unionized. Despite this, some large Canadian Unions, such as the 250,000-members-strong United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have thrown their weight behind four-day workweek.

At the government level, there has been some support for the idea of a four-day workweek, but actions have been sparse.

  • The most prominent example has been the government of Spain which announced a three-year, 50 million euro pilot where 200 to 400 Spanish companies will voluntarily reduce their employees’ working week to 32 hours while keeping their salaries the same.
  • In Canada, the Ontario Liberal Party recently announced it would launch its own four-day workweek pilot if elected. Meanwhile, both premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Trudeau have spoken positively about the idea but did not insinuate any institutional support.

Four-Day Workweeks might become a new reality, but only on a case-by-case basis.

Four-day workweeks have huge potential to address mental health concerns associated with our current five-day, forty-hour system, along with many other benefits. However, the potential drawbacks mean that it is unlikely for legislative change to occur in a similar fashion to how five-day forty-hour workweeks were enshrined as workers’ rights in the early 20th century.

For that reason, the most comprehensive adoption of four-day workweeks will most likely take place at the corporate level. In a time when hiring and retaining talented employees is difficult, it’s easy to imagine why companies might seize the opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competition.

We cannot definitely say that the time for four-day workweeks has arrived, but it is easy to imagine a snowball effect starting to take place. As more trials and studies on four-day workweeks conclude with positive results, we will likely see an increase in corporate adoption, leading to a subsequent increase in public support and awareness.

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