Is it time for the four-day work week?

Another Monday is here, and as the day dawned the weekend sank into the dim, distant past for millions of Canadian workers. As they trudged to the office, shop, factory, basement study or wherever else they earn their daily bread, they began the uphill climb of another hopefully challenging, possibly grinding five-day work week. And whatever satisfaction they derived from their efforts, every step of that climb would see them juggling the demands of work with their responsibilities to home, partners and families. Then, if there were a few minutes left, they might see themselves.

Does it have to be this way, more than a few might have grumbled. A new pilot project that just started in the United Kingdom may have the answer they’re waiting for. Last week, 3,200 employees at 70 different workplaces in the UK began the world’s largest ever experiment with a four-day work week. For the next six months, the program’s participants will receive 100 per cent of their regular pay working 80 per cent of their regular hours in return for their commitment to maintain at least 100 per cent of their regular productivity. Say goodbye to five days on, two days off, the rhythm of life pounded into so many of us for decades. Say hello to four days on, three days off. At least for these Brits.

There are compelling arguments for this shorter work week trial in the UK as well as other smaller ones like it happening elsewhere, including Canada. A barrage of new technologies and their attendant efficiencies were long expected to give humans less work and more play. And history attests to how the 10-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week life so common in the early days of 19th century industrial capitalism gradually shrank to nine-hours-a-day in a five-and-a -half day week. Then, in the mid-20th century, it morphed into the 40-hour, five-day week so many of us now consider normal. But with the technological revolutions happening all around us, why can’t we do even better?

COVID-19 made more people wonder. As the pandemic disrupted every aspect of life, we were forced to rethink the workplace. For many, home became their new office. Working remotely transformed how people lived their daily family lives. And though we’re finally exiting the pandemic, the prospects of artificial intelligence and ever-more talented robots promise new and likely more profound workplace disruptions. We can be reactive to these changes. Or we can be proactive in charting a new course for the workers of the world. The UK’s four-day work week experiment, which is being run by the not-for-profit 4 Day Week Global, is the better response.

A brewery, a tax inheritance specialist, a software firm and even a fish-and-chip shop are all taking part. Academics at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Boston College in the United States will study the impact of the truncated work week on businesses’ productivity, the health and well-being of their employees as well as the effects on the environment and gender equity.

Skeptics are already having a field day. “It can’t be done on a legislative national basis,” opines economist Robert Skidelsky who examined the idea for a British opposition party. He believes with real incomes ready to fall in the face of soaring energy and food prices, people will want to work more hours, not fewer, to keep up their standard of living.

Perhaps. But we’re convinced a shorter work week might suit a lot of people. And so do governments and employers around the world. Workplaces in Iceland, Germany, Spain and Japan have all given it a try, with varying degrees of success. In February, Belgian employees won the right to do a full work week in four days, instead of five, without being dinged on their paycheque. An experiment similar to the one in the UK but with fewer participants was launched in Canada and the US earlier this year.

So keep your fingers crossed. The benefits of a better work-life balance on family relationships, child rearing as well as physical and mental health could provide of inestimable value — even if GDP doesn’t always rise as fast as we want it to. Let’s see what happens to those 3,200 Brits, and their counterparts in other places. With some foresight, planning and luck, we may be inching toward a better future. One where Friday has become the new Saturday.

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