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The four-day work week is coming

But there's a small catch – it won't be here until circa 2074
Canadians are pining for permanent long weekends, and many would be willing to take a pay cut to make it happen. Shutterstock

By Todd Humber

Since the dawn of time, the “traditional” work week has been Monday to Friday.

Alright, well maybe not since the dawn of time.

But since at least 1926 in North America, which is when Henry Ford started shutting down his factories in Detroit on Saturdays – in addition to the usual Sunday, which was long reserved for religious observances in Christian cultures as a day of rest.

The weekend was born. And it was two days – and it was good. But then we all got a taste for long weekends. And three-day weekends suddenly sounded and felt a whole lot better.

But what if every weekend was a long weekend? Many employees think they could pull it off and still get all their work done, according to The Case for a 4-Day Workweek?, a global survey of 3,000 employees by Kronos. Interestingly, Canada led the charge for the four-day week – 59 per cent of full-time Canadian workers wanted a shortened work week, higher than Australia (47 per cent) or the United States (40 per cent).

“If pay remained constant, one-third of global workers say their ideal workweek would last four days (34 per cent), while 20 per cent said they would work three days a week,” Kronos said in a release. “One in four global employees (28 per cent) are content with the standard five-day workweek.”

Even if the corporate overlords wanted to take a bite out of the paycheque to compensate for the lost day, one-third of respondents (35 per cent) would be happy to take a 20 per cent pay cut to enjoy a shorter work week. While Canadians are keen to jump on the bandwagon, only 29 per cent would be willing to take a pay cut to do so — a very having your cake and eating it too attitude.

Workers over 40 should only work three days a week

The Kronos survey comes on the heel of similar research that was published in 2016. If you have Facebook, and are of a certain vintage, you’ll likely have seen your friends post variations of a headline that reads something like “People over 40 perform best with a three-day work week: Study.”

Published in 2016 by the University of Melbourne, it examined 6,500 Australians over the age of 40. The results? People who worked about 25 hours a week performed the best. After that, there was a slight decline until about 35 hours per week. After 40 hours, the decline in performance was precipitous.

In an era of governments slashing benefits and/or raising retirement ages, that math doesn’t add up. The reality is many workers are putting in longer hours and working far beyond traditional retirement ages. Remember Freedom 55? Anyone? Anyone?

What about productivity?

In the all-encompassing strive for productivity, the idea of working fewer hours can give economists palpitations, especially when Canada looks south.

In 2016, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) looked at the productivity gap between Canadian workers and their American counterparts. It found Canadian firms generated 73 per cent as much output as U.S.-based ones. In the 1980s, the figure was more than 90 per cent — so the gap has widened to a point where some experts are questioning whether Canada can hold on to its standard of living.

“That’s why the government and economists worry so much about productivity,” said Pierre Cleroux, BDC’s vice-president, research and chief economist in a 2016 interview with the Edmonton Journal. “If we’re not increasing our productivity, our standard of living is not going to increase in Canada.”

The Kronos survey identified all kinds of time-wasters for workers – fixing problems caused by other employees and administrative work topped the list. Nearly nine in 10 workers report losing time to tasks unrelated to their core jobs, with 41 per cent saying they spend an hour or more per day on this unproductive work.

Social media and meetings are also pegged as common time-wasting culprits.

What do employers do with this plethora of findings? Workers hoping for that permanent long weekend are bound to be disappointed. While Mexican billionaire Carlos Sim made headlines for suggesting an even more radical three-day workweek two years ago, and is even piloting it at his phone company Telmex, it simply isn’t gaining mainstream traction in North America.

In the short term, employers will look at this information from Kronos and see it as an opportunity to increase efficiency and eliminate time-wasters.  

“Organizations must help their people eliminate distractions, inefficiencies and administrative work to enable them to work at full capacity,” said Joyce Maroney, executive director of The Workforce Institute at Kronos.

About that year 2074 prediction...

In the long run, increased productivity and less time wasting could open the door to shorter work weeks and more leisure time. But that’s a tune many workers have heard before — automation was supposed to do the same, and yet the average work week has remained stagnant for most industries in recent years, according to Statistics Canada.

Workers in forestry, logging and support saw their average work week actually increase by 1.2 hours to 41.6 hours from 2013 to 2017, the highest among the North American Industry Classification System stats. On the other end of the spectrum, education workers saw their work week fall 0.8 hours to 32.2 over the same period. Only three of the NAICS categories saw a decrease in hours worked over that four-year span.

A longer view does show some significant movement — the total number of hours worked by the average Canadian in a year fell 17.7 per cent from 1961 to 2017, from 2,059 hours to 1,695. That’s more than 50 years to lose what essentially amounts to a day of work.

Given that pace, we’ll all be enjoying permanent long weekends — sometime around the year 2074.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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