Time, for a Change: The Worker’s Case for a Four Day Workweek

If there were a change we could make to our work lives that has the potential to increase our mental wellness, our work-life balance, our overall happiness and safety at work it would be important to explore and pursue it, right? So why are we so attached to a five-day work week, when study after study has demonstrated that a four-day work week can reap exactly these benefits without negatively impacting our productivity?

The tradition of taking a day for rest or leisure every seven days dates back centuries. However, the concept of “work hours” can be divided into three main eras. Initially, in pre-industrial societies, people worked as much as necessary for survival, likely far less than the modern 40-hour work week.

This pattern shifted dramatically during the mid-18th century with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. By the mid-19th century, workers in newly mechanized factories commonly worked exhausting 70-hour, six-day weeks.

Industrialization enabled a new level of manufacturing, drawing in millions of immigrants and former enslaved people into wage work. Workers, valuing control over their time as essential for freedom, began protesting long hours and poor conditions. However, change was slow; in 1890, the average full-time manufacturing employee in the US worked 100 hours per week.

It has now been nearly one hundred years since Henry Ford allegedly introduced the concept of the 8 hour work day and five day work week in 1926. He reportedly made the move from a six day work week to five in the name of greater freedom and prosperity for workers, though his motivations were more likely a blend of self interest and more importantly pressure from an increasingly powerful and persuasive labour movement The quest for a reduced workday had started with the Nine Hour Movement in 1872. By 1890, the Federation of Labour advocated for an eight-hour workday in Canada. In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards Act, a component of the New Deal, extended the eight-hour day to workers in numerous industries, although some groups had secured this standard as early as 1842. In Canada, the implementation of the eight-hour day appears to differ among provinces. Unsurprisingly, the move to fewer hours and more days off did not result in the collapse of Ford’s company, the economy, nor civilization as we knew it.

Since this change, as a society we seem to generally have accepted the five day, forty hour work week as an immutable fact of life. We have embraced or at least resigned ourselves to this reality despite industrial, technological, and intellectual advances that would have been inconceivable to folks in 1926.

A popular meme format originating in 2021 pokes fun at this idea writing “All our Ancient Greek ancestors looking at us having all these complex machines that can do the work of 1000s of men (yet) we all still have jobs instead of having (parties) outside and eating figs” juxtaposed with images, artwork or figures in with expressions of extreme disgust, surprise or disappointment. We have created previously unfathomable increases of productivity and production and failed to see a commensurate increase in our leisure or relative compensation.

The Covid pandemic was and continues to be a tragic and disruptive event. It may also offer workers potential benefits amidst the chaos in the form of a wake-up call. Firstly to workers- economic historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor at the University of Iowa writes that “the experience of the pandemic struck some chords”, with an emerging sentiment that there might be a way to live life more fully while managing job responsibilities. “It’s a topic that’s back on the table for consideration.” Coined by Anthony Klotz, a professor at University College London, the term “great resignation” predicted a significant wave of worker disruptions post-COVID-19. Embraced by academics and commentators, this phrase suggests that employees are reclaiming their lives due to factors like high burnout rates, a quest for improved work/life balance, and toxic work environments

Secondly, the pandemic has forced some employers to reckon with a new reality. The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated existing mental health considerations and other issues facing workers. Workers faced heightened stress and, in many cases, reached a state of burnout. As a previous OHC article noted: “A recent comprehensive research study commissioned by Workplace Strategies for Mental Health reported that one-third of all working Canadians are feeling burned out. Some industries that showed burnout rates well above the national average include health care, transportation, education and childcare, and first responders. The World Health Organization defines burnout as chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed. It is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, a sense of feeling not as engaged and disconnected from your job and decreased job satisfaction. In other words, burnout is an extended period of stress that feels like it can’t get better.”

Michael Leiter, an independent organizational psychologist and consultant underscores the significance of this issue, especially in fields like healthcare where he specializes. According to Leiter, workplace stress poses a considerable challenge for companies, making it harder to attract new talent and retain existing employees in sectors such as healthcare and various other industries.

So how can the four-day work week help us reclaim the important parts of our lives, take advantage of advances in productivity and help prevent burnout, accidents and increase overall job satisfaction?

According to a CBC article, hundreds of employees in North America now work four days a week after participating in a pilot project organized by the non-profit advocacy group 4 Day Week Global and researchers at Boston College.

Of the 41 companies that participated and were surveyed, 35 reported they are keeping, planning to, or leaning toward maintaining the new working scheme.

This pilot program recently released a report investigating the effects of reducing the workweek. Surveying participants, the findings revealed that 71 percent reported reduced burnout levels, while 39 percent experienced lower stress compared to the start of the trial. Companies witnessed a notable decrease of 65 percent in sick and personal days, and resignations decreased by over half when compared to the preceding six-month period. Despite a reduction in work hours, companies’ revenues showed minimal change, with a slight increase of 1.4 percent on average during the testing period.

Maureen Juniper, co-founder of Praxis, adopted a split approach: half the employees have Mondays off, and the other half has Fridays off to ensure continuous client service. The change led to a 25% reduction in personal and sick days and a 15% decrease in time spent on internal tasks, with no impact on revenue. “It’s life-changing, and our business has never run more efficiently,” Juniper told CBC.

“We’re seeing that shorter working weeks lead to happier, healthier employees,” said O’Connor, who’s also the director and co-founder of the Work Time Reduction Centre of Excellence in Toronto. “They lead to organizations that are better positioned to attract and retain talent, and actually, very surprisingly for people, they’re also leading to organizations which are more productive.”

The study had companies, most having between 11 to 25 employees, voluntarily try a four-day work week for six months between February 2022 and April 2023. Companies maintained pay at 100 percent.

It’s important to consider counterarguments from a worker’s standpoint when contemplating the implementation of four-day workweeks. One major consideration is what needs to be sacrificed in order to maintain high productivity within a condensed timeframe. This may necessitate trimming non-essential aspects from the workday. This might involve something like eliminating unnecessary meetings but it could also mean reducing the leisurely moments of interaction, such as casual chats while waiting for tea to steep or impromptu hallway conversations to stay connected with colleagues. Leisure at the workplace can be extremely important for our mental health, social relationships and workplace culture.

Other potential drawbacks include heightened employee surveillance and intensified performance measurements. Additionally, positive employee reactions may diminish over time. If the push for shorter workweeks compels employers to extract maximum productivity within reduced hours, coupled with advancements in employee surveillance technologies, the paradoxical result could be more leisure time at the expense of diminished workplace freedom.

It’s important that these potential pitfalls are kept in mind and that the pursuit of greater freedoms for workers in the form of less work hours is married with an unflinching commitment to the rights, benefits, and long term well-being of workers.

It seems that around the world, the pandemic has had a jarring effect on workers and organizational leaders, reminding us of our priorities and perhaps most importantly, interrupting and challenging the idea that the way things have been is the only way things can be. Today, workers have an opportunity to take advantage of an interruption of our daily lives, demanding greater rights and reduced hours before the dust settles and we collectively return to the questionable notion that eight hour days and forty hour weeks are the only way to work.