There has long been a lament in Canadian business circles about this country’s relatively poor labour productivity. We’re not as productive as the U.S. and some other advanced countries; we are not even in the top 10. Worse, we don’t know why. The Bank of Canada said in 2013 that “the reasons for this lacklustre performance are not fully understood.” Perhaps, then, we should consider the words of the world’s richest man, the Mexican magnate Carlos Slim Helu. He recently made headlines by proposing that the five-day work week be ditched. In its place, people would work just three days a week, of 10 or 11 hours each. They’d then have four days off. At the same time, workers would retire later, likely in their 70s.
Mr. Slim, who among other things controls Mexico’s largest telecom company, believes that the three-day schedule might make workers happier and more productive, and even stimulate the economy by creating a demand for all sorts of new leisure-time products and services.
The idea is not self-evidently crazy. And it at least raises a good question: Could Canadians be more productive if companies experimented with something other than the traditional 40-hour, five-day work week?
In simplest terms, a country’s labour productivity can be measured by comparing gross domestic product with hours worked. But there is no direct relationship between working more hours and having a higher GDP. South Korean wage earners log among the highest number of work hours per year (more than 2,200), but the country’s productivity is lower than Canada’s. In hyperproductive Norway, in contrast, the work week has been falling steadily and has now settled at about 37 hours per week. In Canada, the work week has been expanding for 20 years; one study from 2012 reported that two-thirds of us work more than 45 hours per week.
Canadians may work longer, but raising productivity is about figuring out how to work smarter. In one of Mr. Slim’s companies, workers can retire at 50 but then continue to work three days a week into their 70s. In many of the most productive countries, wage earners work as many as 10 hours fewer per week than Canadians, have longer holidays and are more apt to work part-time.
Mr. Slim is suggesting that there may be other ways for employers to get the most out of employees – and vice versa. If his talk of a three-day week does nothing else than get companies thinking, that will be a useful thing.