Brad Badelt is a freelance science and environment writer based in Vancouver.
In 1930, at the onset of the Great Depression, British economist John Maynard Keynes made two bold predictions: Within a century, the standard of living in Europe and the United States would increase 400 per cent to 800 per cent; and with technological advances, we wouldn’t have to work much any more more – only three hours a day.
“We shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible,” he wrote in his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”
On the first prediction, he was remarkably accurate. The standard of living in the West has increased fivefold since 1930 (as measured by inflation-adjusted GDP per capita). But despite leaps in technology, the three-hour workday has yet to pan out.
Our workweek today, in fact, isn’t that different than in Keynes’s time. The five-day, 40-hour week is standard in Canada and many other countries and goes back to the 1920s, when it was introduced by Henry Ford for his assembly lines. It was a radical shift at the time, as most factory employees worked gruellingly long hours six days a week. By giving workers a proper weekend, Ford saw an immediate return: increased productivity.
A century later, the five-day workweek is still with us. Since the onset of the pandemic, however, there have been calls for change. A number of companies, faced with financial challenges, have imposed shorter workweeks coupled with pay cuts as a way to avoid layoffs. Others have compressed their 40-hour workweeks from five days to four to give staff more flexibility for child care and homeschooling duties. But with the end of the crisis hopefully in sight, we should be looking at the four-day week not as a temporary fix but as a permanent shift in the way we work.
Last May, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, floated the idea of a four-day workweek as a way to bring back her country’s economy. Ms. Ardern, who was speaking via live video on Facebook, pointed to the importance of tourism, which employs 15 per cent of New Zealand’s population and gets a large portion of its revenues domestically. A postpandemic four-day workweek, she suggested, would give people more opportunity to travel within New Zealand and spend money.
It’s an intriguing idea that Canada should consider as well. And not just to support our own domestic tourism industry, which has been similarly hard hit by the pandemic. A compressed workweek – in which employees retain the same income – has been shown to improve employee well-being and reduce workplace stress. It’s been correlated with improved productivity. And, to a lesser degree, it’s a way to reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions.
Some of the resistance to a four-day workweek has been rooted in the long-held belief that working longer hours means getting more accomplished. But research has shown that’s not necessarily the case. A study from Stanford University, for example, noted a significant drop in productivity and creativity when employees worked more than 45 hours in a week. After 55 hours, the researchers found, productivity dropped so much that it was relatively pointless to keep working.
According to the OECD, Canadians work about 1,670 hours a year. That puts us about average for developed countries, just below the U.S. and significantly less than hard-working South Korea. But compared with Northern European counties such as Denmark (1,380 hours) and Norway (1,384 hours), we’re working almost 300 hours more every year. Yet both Norway and Denmark have significantly higher productivity rates than Canada. They also rank above us in the latest World Happiness Report.
The most widely reported corporate trial of a four-day workweek was that of Microsoft Japan. The company tested it in 2019 and reported a productivity boost of 40 per cent, as well as cost savings in several areas, including electricity, which fell almost a quarter. The trial wasn’t strictly about reducing the number of workdays; it was also about working more efficiently. The standard duration of meetings was cut from 60 minutes to 30, and attendance was capped at five employees.
Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trust management company, likewise saw a 20-per-cent boost in productivity when it shifted to a shorter workweek. Perhaps more importantly, though, the company also reported a 45-per-cent increase in employee work-life balance and measurable improvements in job satisfaction and staff retention.
The Henley Business School at the University of Reading found similar results in 2019 when it surveyed some 250 companies in the U.K. that had adopted a four-day week. “A shorter working week (on full pay) could add to businesses’ bottom lines through increased productivity and an uplift in staff physical and mental health,” the study’s authors wrote.
It’s these employee wellness outcomes that may be the most compelling argument of all. In Canada, workplace stress and burnout are rampant. In many ways, the pandemic has only heightened that – blurring the lines between home and work and leading many of us to check our laptops and phones at all hours. For this reason alone, a three-day weekend every week may be just what this country needs right now.
A recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute suggests that Canadians are ready for a break. Fifty-three per cent of survey respondents said it’s a good idea to make a 30-hour workweek standard in Canada, while just 22 per cent were opposed (the remainder were undecided). “The concept of a shorter work week, much like that of the universal basic income, finds its highest levels of support among younger Canadians, with six-in-ten of those ages 18-34 saying a four-day work week would be a good idea,” the study reported.
A compressed workweek may not be for everyone – or for every employer. But with the end of the pandemic almost in sight, we have a unique opportunity to try something different. And as Ford discovered a century ago, we might be pleasantly surprised by the results.
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