Is Your Boss Ready for a Four-Day Work Week?

Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau’s staff haven’t worked a five-day week since 2020.

“It’s been over two years now, and we have often recognized for punching well above our weight with a very small team of seven employees,” Furstenau said.

That’s one reason Furstenau wants B.C. businesses to give a four-day work week a try — and why she thinks the government should launch a pilot program to support businesses in adopting it.

Furstenau wants the government to run a three-year study on a four-day work week by offering participating private businesses a tax break if they agree to cut a day’s worth of work without reducing employee compensation.

In exchange, Furstenau says those companies would provide the government with data on how a shortened work week affects business and employees, which would be published annually.

She believes it could nudge more businesses into giving a four-day week a shot, and contribute to a growing pool of studies claiming that a shortened week carries huge benefits for employees.

Neither the NDP nor the BC Liberals are enthusiastic about the idea, but it is part of a growing push to rethink how and when we work.

“It’s more than just saying it’s a four-day work week,” Furstenau told The Tyee. “It’s really a question of, can we build back better? Can we imagine a life for ourselves and our kids that is less of a grind?”

The fight for a four-day work week has gained traction across the globe in recent years. In January, the Welsh Parliament supported work week pilot programs in the public sector. Microsoft’s Japanese offices experimented with a four-day week in 2019, and found employees were both happier and more productive.

And a recent six-month study involving 61 British companies and more than 2,900 employees ended with the vast majority of those firms opting to keep the new working hours.

The report noted that the four-day week trials took many forms. Companies could participate as long as they maintained full pay and “and gave employees a ‘meaningful’ reduction in work time.”

“Each company designed a policy tailored to its particular industry, organizational challenges, departmental structures and work culture,” the report said.

A Canadian report noted four-day week approaches can range from simply eliminating one day from the work week and reducing the total hours worked to increasing the length of the other four days to make up for the lost time.

But Jim Stanford said the fight for a shorter work week is as old as, well, work. “The process of gradually shortening the work week has gradually been going on for a century and a half, really,” said Stanford, a labour economist and director of the Centre for Future Work. In the decades after the Industrial Revolution, workers successfully whittled down the work week from seven days to six and then eventually to five.

“There’s always been a struggle for workers to get more control over their lives, including time away from work,” Stanford said.

Today, the target is four days and governments across the world are paying attention. The Spanish government committed 10 million euros to support companies experimenting with a four-day work week in 2021. Earlier this year, the U.S. state of Maryland began considering legislation that would give companies a tax break to shorten the work week by a day, much as Furstenau is proposing.

Stanford said those projects have only gained steam since the COVID-19 pandemic forced a reckoning over our relationship with work.

At the same time, Stanford notes employees are gaining more power to set their work conditions. “For most times since the early ’80s in Canada, it’s been an employer’s labour market. They’ve had the power to pick and choose among workers. They have access to a ready pool of desperate people,” Stanford said.

Today the labour market is considerably tighter. B.C.’s official unemployment rate hit 4.4 per cent in January. Preliminary data from Statistics Canada estimates there were roughly 134,000 unfilled vacancies in the province in November. And the latest provincial budget predicts a growing number of older people will leave the workforce in the coming decade.

That, Stanford says, means workers have choices — and some employers are struggling to hire and keep staff.

Furstenau believes that’s all the more reason to experiment with a shorter working week.

The British study on a four-day work week, led by the progressive research firm Autonomy, found employees who had a shortened work week reported feeling less stress and were less likely to burn out. Staff retention improved, too. The report says the number of staff departing participating companies declined by an average of 57 per cent compared to the prior six months.

“One of the things that I’ve noticed in my riding is businesses advertising on billboards on the side of the highway saying, ‘Come work for us, you get a four-day work week,’” Furstenau said.

“Businesses need to make themselves appealing right now.”

The same U.K. study found participating firms didn’t see a drop in business. An analysis of 23 participating companies in that study found their average revenues increased by 1.4 per cent over the course of the study, weighted for their size.

But Furstenau believes that companies in B.C. should be motivated to shorten their work week through a small tax break. She said she did not know how substantial that break should be, but estimated it could cost between $1 million and $2 million.

“There is an exchange here. The businesses signing on to this and getting the tax break, in exchange, will provide data. And that helps the government understand the kind of outcomes of a four-day week and be able to form policy based on evidence and data,” Furstenau said.

B.C.’s Ministry of Labour did not directly respond when asked if they would consider a pilot like the one Furstenau has suggested. And BC Liberal labour critic Greg Kyllo questioned whether the province should use taxpayer money on such a project, given the availability of data from other jurisdictions.

“The pilot may not pose a significant amount of challenge… [but] there’s no shortage of areas that are short on funding right now in the province,” Kyllo said in an interview. “Is this a priority? I’m not sure if it is.”

A spokeswoman for the B.C. Ministry of Finance also confirmed there are no plans to experiment with a four-day work week in the province’s public service, though some employees may have contracts with the employer allowing for a shortened schedule.

B.C. businesses, officially, don’t have a position on the idea.

“What is most important to our members is that the costs shouldered by businesses are lowered so they can succeed and their communities can thrive,” said BC Chamber of Commerce president Fiona Famulak.

One of the biggest challenges of proposing a four-day week is that it presupposes workers already work just five days. Many industries like food service and manufacturing, Stanford says, don’t work a standard 9 to 5. “Many of these experiments have been in unique workplaces where the workers had a lot of flexibility over their jobs and where they were hired for particular technical skills,” Stanford said.

“It’s going to be a different issue if you’re talking about a manufacturing industry, say, or a restaurant, or anywhere else where there is a flow of work that’s not within the control of the individual worker.”

That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Shira Blustein is the manager of The Acorn and The Arbor, a pair of popular vegetarian restaurants on Main Street in Vancouver. Most kitchen jobs, Blustein said, have hard, unpredictable hours; it’s not uncommon for cooks to work six nights a week. Her kitchen shifted to a four-day work week five years ago, she said, in part to avoid exhaustion. So far, it’s worked.

“Really what it came down to is that burnout is real, especially in restaurants and especially in kitchens in restaurants,” Blustein said.

“I think it’s been widely well received, mostly because if someone is working 40 hours and they do that in four days, they have three days off for themselves,” she said.

Furstenau says a four-day week could be about a lot more than the bottom line, if done right.

“All of the markers that we want to be measuring, if we are oriented towards a healthy population, a healthy economy, healthy businesses, all of the markers keep pointing to the same thing,” she said.

Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee