Written for Daily Hive by BC Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, Cowichan Valley
Over the past several months COVID-19 has challenged everything we know. It has highlighted some of the great vulnerabilities and inequalities in our society. Above all else, it has shown us that we are willing to make drastic changes to safeguard the health and wellbeing of those we love.
As we recover from coronavirus and begin to reopen our economy, we need to be considering innovative policies like a four-day workweek to keep the wellbeing of British Columbians at the forefront.
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Many British Columbians struggle to maintain a work-life balance. People are caught in long commutes, struggling to balance full-time jobs with taking care of their children and their elders, and barely finding time to relax and unwind amidst it all. Stress and burnout are widespread, and they not only have mental health impacts, but also significant economic costs.
Moving to a four-day workweek could help us reset the balance, allowing people more time to rest and recharge in their busy lives, to connect with family and loved ones, and to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways. The benefits could be particularly impactful for women in the workforce, who often take on a disproportionate amount of caring responsibilities in addition to work outside the home.
Our current workweek was established in a different moment in history and working environment than what we have today. Labour movements started the fight for an eight-hour day beginning in the mid-1800s. The eight-hour day and the 40-hour week started to be more widely adopted by companies in the early 1900s and became widely cemented in law in the first half of the 20th century.
Since then, the structure of our economy has changed fundamentally and unprecedented technological change has transformed every aspect of our lives, including how we work.
And yet the five-day, 40-hour workweek is still the norm. It’s time that we reconsider our work practices and modernize them for the 21st century.
Studies have shown that a shortened workweek improves efficiency, job satisfaction, and talent retention.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less — Here’s how, summarizes the benefits observed at hundreds of businesses who have implemented the four-day workweek: “Employees are healthier and use fewer sick days because they have more time to exercise, cook better food, and take better care of themselves. Their work-life balance improves, they’re more focused and creative, and they’re less likely to burn out.”
There is also evidence that businesses can see significant boosts in productivity from moving to a shorter workweek.
Microsoft Japan trialled a four-day workweek in 2019 with promising results, finding that productivity rose 40%. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand estate planning business, moved to a shortened week and found productivity rose and employees, who had more time for families and hobbies, were happier. What initially began as a pilot project they decided to make permanent. And here in BC, the David Suzuki Foundation has successfully had a four-day workweek and other flexible working arrangements for over 20 years.
COVID-19 will continue to present unique economic challenges that require new solutions. A shorter workweek could provide specific benefits during our economic recovery. One of the hardest-hit sectors of our economy will continue to be our tourism sector, and with international borders remaining closed, domestic tourism will be vital to the sector’s recovery.
A shorter workweek would give people the flexibility to explore their own backyard and give our tourism industry a much-needed boost. In other sectors, implementing reduced and staggered work schedules would help support physical distancing and less crowded offices.
Whether we want it to or not, the coronavirus is reshaping the status quo. We need to seize this opportunity to advance necessary changes to make our economy and society healthier, more resilient, and more innovative.
We must also recognize that while a shorter-work week will help countless British Columbians have a better quality of life, there are many others, especially precarious workers and low wage earners, who struggle to make ends meet. This is why ensuring every British Columbian can earn a livable income must be part of making our economy work for everyone.
As part of a more comprehensive look at our working policies, a four-day workweek could, for many, mean a better quality of life and more time for what really matters.