Should Canada Adopt a Four-Day Workweek?

Support for a four-day workweek seems to be gaining momentum across the country. We asked Melissa Milkie, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, what that could mean for the average Canadian.

Reader’s Digest Canada: There seems to be growing support for a four-day workweek, including a proposed pilot project from the Ontario Liberal Party. Why is this a pressing topic right now?

Melissa Milkie: The pandemic fundamentally shifted our understanding of the ways that work can be accomplished—where, when and in how much time. With the social interactions and downtime at offices reduced by working from home, it’s become more clear that for some jobs—ones that are results based rather than time based—the same work could be accomplished in fewer hours.

You’re an expert on work-life balance. How might life be better if we spent less time at work?

There are lots of potential positives to spending more time on life’s non-work time “buckets,” which are unpaid work, self-care and leisure. My studies show the more time a person spends on paid work, the lower their overall life satisfaction. Of course, there are caveats, the biggest one being that employers would have to maintain the same pay for fewer hours.

Okay, but if I’m an employer, how do you convince me this is a good idea?

If you look at the current labour shortages, you can see that more desirable working conditions might be a way to attract and retain the best talent. There’s a nursing home in Virginia that adopted a four-day week with five days’ pay. Staffing costs were higher, but there was money saved in reduced turnover, and less spent on training. There was also better performance and fewer errors, which is good for business in the long run. With jobs that are part of the knowledge economy (as opposed to the labour economy), you don’t even have to hire more people.

Why is that?

There’s a principle called Parkinson’s Law, which states that the amount of time a task requires will expand to fill the time given to do it, often due to increased but often unnecessary bureaucracy. So it’s important to examine the status quo: what is the purpose of a report? Is this meeting really necessary? We also know that when people have more time away from work, they are less likely to let non-work activity infringe on their workday. And when people are working toward a goal like having more time to themselves, they are often more focused and efficient.

How did we land on five days for work in the first place?

For a long time, people worked longer than that—60 or 70 hours a week in the 19th century. The five-day week was adopted around the end of that century with the rise of unions, and major technological advances—electricity, for example.

With all of the progress since, why haven’t work hours decreased more?

Our current culture really glorifies work, and many organizations view the ideal worker as one who is always available.

The Ontario government has put forth “right to disconnect” legislation to limit when employers can expect people to answer messages. Is this an effective pushback?

It would establish clear lines between work time and personal time, and it puts the onus on the employer, which is important. It’s not about banning work after a certain hour so much as encouraging decisions that respect personal time. For example, I may write emails to my students over the weekend, because I want to get things off my plate, but I won’t schedule them to send until 9 a.m. on Monday.

Next, we ask an expert, “Should we scrap daylight saving time?

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada