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The Four-Day Work Week

Would working fewer hours really make a difference?

Rumours of the Finnish Prime Minister promoting a four-day work week in her country sparked a global debate last month around the implications of such a plan, with mixed reactions.

The notion of working fewer hours for the same pay is not new. In the 1920s, the Ford Motor Company was one of the first corporations to implement a five-day, 40-hour week for workers in its automotive factories. The move disrupted American labour trends at a time when 10 to 12-hour work days were the norm. Henry Ford believed that his employees needed time for recreation, which in turn boosts productivity. In a similar vein, people argue that the number of tools available at our disposal today should naturally result in fewer work hours to achieve the same levels of productivity.

“Technology has changed our workplaces and a 21st-century solution is needed,” says Paul Eastwood, lead pastor at Compass Point Bible Church in Burlington, Ont. He’s noticed changes in the way his congregation talks about work. “There is no doubt in my mind that a four-day work week is the next step in the evolution of productivity.”

In 1930, the economist John Keynes wrote an essay called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” He said that in 100 years, people will work only 15 hours a week because of the advances in industrialization and efficient work practices. In that day, average work weeks were closer to 60 hours.

But here we are 90 years later and while it is true that technology has drastically changed our work places, our constant connectivity often means that many of us are taking our work home and on vacation, rather than clocking fewer hours.

More with less
The key to a shorter work week may lie in eliminating interruptions from the days we are at work. A 2018 survey of 3,000 employees in eight countries found that more than half of full-time workers thought they could do their jobs in five hours a day, if they didn’t have any interruptions (Workforce Institute at Kronos). In another study, data provided by the University of Ohio suggests that the average employee is actually productive for less than three hours in a typical eight-hour work day.

Increasingly, companies are putting this research to the test and have begun to experiment with shorter work days or even shorter work weeks. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand based will writing company, decided to adopt the four-day work week after an eight-week trial. Academics who studied the trial reported lower stress levels, higher levels of job satisfaction and an improved sense of work-life balance, with a 20 percent increase in employee productivity.

Nine thousand American companies that participated in the Society for Human Resources Management’s survey conducted in April 2019 said they offer a four-day work week of 32 hours or less. Countless more companies have not quite taken the leap towards a four-day work week, but are creating avenues for more flexibility such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks and job sharing in order to promote work-life balance.

The daily grind
But the question remains: if we can be just as productive while working fewer days in a week, how will we spend the extra time? Would we rest more or would we fill that space in our lives with different kinds of work?

Barb England, Director of Operations at Compass Point Bible Church, said that she would spend that extra day being productive or volunteering. When I surveyed a group of international colleagues, they had a similar response. Most people thought that they would spend that time doing some kind of work, or with family, but didn’t think that they could consistently sit back and relax.

Canadian baby boomers are especially known for their dedication to long working hours. Growing up during rapid population growth meant that they experienced increased competition in all spheres of life, including work. “The Boomers learned that if you didn’t put in the hours, somebody else would,” writes generational expert Hayden Shaw.

I interviewed one baby boomer who thought the idea of a four-day work week was untenable. Even if it was legislated, she says her team would probably come in on that extra day to catch up on work. Even as many baby boomers retire from senior management positions, their influence on workplace culture persists.

Counter-cultural rhythms
The temptation to work more is real for many Canadians since our consumer culture also pushes us towards maximizing our profits and accomplishments. But while the world calls us to relentless productivity, our faith calls us to rhythms of rest. “A healthy rhythm of work and rest is a gift not simply for our physical health but also for our emotional and spiritual health,” Eastwood concludes. “We are better people when employing these rhythms, not simply better employees.”

“It’s easy to believe we can’t rest from our work, that we have to push, push, push into the next obligation or we’ll fall behind,” Rebekah Lyons writes, in her recent book Rhythms of Renewal. “But we have to rest from those cycles long enough to take inventory. If we don’t, we might miss God’s best for us, the plan that will bring us ultimate rest from a very demanding world.”

A simple change to our work week will not immediately make us less frazzled by the busyness of life. But discussions around a four-day work week do provide the opportunity to practice better rhythms of work and rest.

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