Could working less boost a country’s economy? That was the question after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern floated the idea of giving people the option of a four-day work week.
Ardern was talking about ways to boost her country’s economy recently in a widely-viewed Facebook live video. She pointed to the importance of tourism, which employs 15 per cent of New Zealand’s population and gets a large portion of its revenues domestically. A four-day work week, she suggested, would give people the opportunity to travel within New Zealand and spend money.
“Ultimately,” she said, “that really sits between employers and employees.”
But it was an intriguing enough idea that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked if the idea would work in Canada, especially now that many businesses are reopening with shorter hours due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I think there are a lot of people thinking creatively about what the post-COVID world could look like,” he said. “And I look forward to hearing a wide range of suggestions. But right now, we’re very much focused on getting through this particular crisis.”
An Angus Reid poll published Friday suggests more Canadians are beginning to like the idea of a four-day work week. More than half (53 per cent) of those polled said that a 30-hour work week, or a four day work week, would be a good idea – up from 47 per cent in 2018.
The 40-hour work week was adopted in 1914 when Henry Ford scaled the work week down from 48 to 40 hours, correctly believing productivity would improve.
And recent stats suggest there’s something to that.
The OECD used the average annual work hours of various countries as it relates to GDP. What it found was that while Norwegians (1,419 hours worked per year) and Germans (1,356 hours) worked fewer hours than Canadians (1,695 hours), their GDP per hour (Norway 83.1, Germany 72.2) was considerably higher than Canada’s 53.5.
“People are saying, ‘Well, this would be great’, and it might be great, but it’s not so straightforward as, Let it in and go forward,” says John Trougakos of the Rotman School of Business. “It’s a question of, well, who does it work for? How does it work? It would require companies, you know, taking some time to think about what the advantages are.”
Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day work week in 2019 and found it led to more efficient meetings and happier workers. And it decided to formally adopt the pilot project when it concluded productivity had increased by 40 per cent.
But what works for one might not work for all. In 2017, the Swedish city of Gothenburg tried out a six-hour workday for nurses at an old-age home. And while the nurses reported being happier and healthier, the city had to hire additional nurses to make up for the missing hours. With fears that costs could spiral out of control, city officials ended the project.
Chris Higgins from Western University’s Ivey School of Business has been studying work-life balance his entire career. He says some companies have experimented with a compressed work schedule where employees work four days a week but their shifts are 10 hours long.
“Productivity definitely goes up for white-collar workers, especially when they’re working from home,” he says, “because you’d lose like an hour or two on the commute. You lose the social (interactions) all around the office, you know, talking about the hockey game and that. So productivity for white-collar workers tends to go way, way up with work at home and four-day work weeks.”
But the idea falls apart when manual labour is involved. Higgins says the compressed schedule for blue-collar workers led to a decrease in productivity because they physically couldn’t handle longer hours.