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future of work

The Monday of the May two-four weekend, or Victoria Day as the nostalgic among us call it, started out like many other days. Before the clock struck 7 in the morning, I greeted our grocery delivery woman, who was dropping off our regular order. Then I made a quick run to the local coffee shop, where I enjoyed a latte as a holiday indulgence, served to me by the regular barista. I asked her whether she minded working on a holiday and she responded: "Everyone I know works today."

On my way home, I passed by shops that were just starting to open and gardeners going about their routine. Then I served my own kids breakfast as I waited for our babysitter, who would watch my youngest as I went about my own work calling customers and colleagues in the United States and the U.K. That evening, my son's enriched math class ran, as it does every Monday, holiday or not.

This "holiday" offers me and many others a little bit of down time to get a head start on an otherwise busy week. While many may lament this new world of work, where we are always on, it's a benefit as much as it's a curse. Having others at work allowed me to get my errands done so that I would not have to squeeze them into an otherwise shortened workweek.

However, much like Sunday shopping needed to be reconsidered 25 years ago in Ontario, the concept of statutory holidays could use some rethinking to be aligned with today's working trends and our multicultural environment.

Let's start with the statutory holidays that coincide with religious events on the Christian calendar. In my earlier years, I always volunteered to work Christmas and Boxing Day, since the days carried no personal meaning for me. I negotiated taking days off on Jewish holidays instead. However, after having children, I accepted the government-mandated holiday since schools and daycares closed down, so my family enjoyed the day off together, despite the fact that it held no special significance for us.

These religious-turned-secular holidays effectively provide greater benefit to some members of the population than others, according to Stuart Rudner, a founding partner of Rudner MacDonald LLP, an employment law boutique in Toronto. Those who don't celebrate Christmas and Easter must make their own, imperfect arrangements around school and work. While Mr. Rudner acknowledges there is no perfect solution, it may be time to explore some alternatives. That may include offering employees a designated number of "holy days," rather than specifically granting Christmas, Easter and Boxing Day off.

Granted, this would be a bumpy move for many employers – and possibly a scheduling nightmare – but the way our always-on economy is heading, I suspect that most would adapt relatively quickly.

Other multicultural cities are also exploring innovative approaches to holidays. New York City's public schools, for example, now observe Muslim holidays.

Religion aside, what many of us consider to be government-sanctioned holidays remain days off in theory only. My barista surely opened up the shop as early as always on this holiday Monday. Many restaurants, hotels and other service-based business are expected to stay open regardless of the holiday and that means some of their employees must show up for work. In that case, trading certain holidays for others that are more relevant may not only suit employees, but their employers, too.

The goal of rethinking statutory holidays is not to ensure we take less time off, but to allow people to take those days when it suits them, and recognize that in our 24/7 economy, this is not always the case.

"I've always been a big fan of floating holidays. Most friends of ours, like us, are not religious and would rather use paid holidays for things like our wedding anniversaries and birthdays," said Aimee Levens, a recruiting consultant in Portland, Ore. Though her husband was going to be paid overtime for working the Memorial Day holiday on Monday, Ms. Levens said they would have preferred he have the option to take another day off in lieu, as he gets only one week of paid vacation a year.

Not everyone believes that floating holidays are a panacea for our existing work force culture. Maradene Wills, manager of employee insights and analytics at Bank of Nova Scotia, worries that while floating holidays sound good, it places government-sanctioned holidays on the slippery slope to being rescinded, especially by small companies looking to save money.

"You can call an official government-sanctioned day off work – anything you want – just don't take it away," Ms. Wills said.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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