Coast readers: A four-day workweek in Nova Scotia? It’s not as far-fetched as you think

Findings from what has been billed as the world’s largest trial of a four-day workweek suggest that paying workers the same wages for less work not only improves employees’ well-being, it might actually (surprise, surprise) benefit a company’s bottom line.

A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge partnered with researchers from Boston College and independent research company Autonomy for the six-month study, which followed 61 workplaces and about 2,900 workers across the UK. Each of the companies involved—spanning industries from finance to retail to healthcare—committed to reducing their employees’ hours by 20% (roughly the equivalent of a single workday per week) for half a year.

The catch? Those same companies also pledged to pay their employees the same as before.

Less sick days and reported stress, study found

The trial took place from June to December 2022. Some of the most drastic results came in employees’ self-reported well-being: 71% of workers polled said they felt less burnt out at the end of the six-month period, and roughly two in five reported lower levels of stress. That spun off into workers’ personal lives: 60% said they felt it was easier to combine their work with care responsibilities, while 62% said it was easier to balance their jobs with a social life. The biggest surprise might well have been that the numbers weren’t, in fact, even higher.

Ah, but what about the money, you ask? Surely productivity must have taken a hit. Not so, according to the report’s findings: Researchers found workers took a staggering 65% fewer sick days than before the six-month trial, and participating companies saw a 57% drop in staff turnover. Among the 23 companies that disclosed their finances, researchers found revenue hadn’t declined; in fact, it increased by 1.4%. The results were promising enough that nine in ten organizations surveyed said they planned to keep their new work schedules.

Coast readers weigh in: Could it work in Nova Scotia?

If it works for our neighbours across the Atlantic Ocean, could it work in our province too? We asked Coast readers that very question last week. The response, as you might have expected, was enthusiastic: More than four in five poll respondents replied that they “love the idea” in theory, or that they’d like to try it at their workplace.

Coast reader Elizabeth O. writes that they would “very much appreciate” a four-day week, adding that there is “too much to do, and never enough time” to get it done.

“I have worked four-day weeks, and it allows me to miss less work time,” Elizabeth says. “I have a day for errands and appointments. Then a day to do chores and a day for laundry and family or friends. My preferred work week is Tuesday to Friday.”

Retiree and Coast reader Don MacNeill writes that while they “won’t see the benefit of it” because their working days are over, they imagine both positive and negative outcomes, from “one less day of having to pay for a babysitter” and “better division between family and work,” to challenges for downtown businesses that might benefit from commuters coming from outside the Halifax peninsula.

Coast reader S. Baker says they tried a four-day workweek “for a summer” at an “industrial type shop” that they owned in the 1980s. The workers “pretty much loved it,” Baker writes, but it posed problems for receiving deliveries or customers who wanted to pick up orders on Fridays. “We stuck with it for that one summer, but did not do it again,” Baker adds.

Several Coast readers who offered thoughts on a four-day workweek agreed that it was only worth exploring if it didn’t mean “compressing 40 hours into four days.”

“I can barely drag myself through an eight-hour day, with no energy left at the end to do anything else. I can’t imagine adding two more hours to it!” one Coast reader writes.

Precedent for four-day workweek in Nova Scotia

Four-day workweeks have found some traction in our province. In June 2020, the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (whew, that’s a name) trialled a hybrid four-day week in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Municipal staffers alternated two days on-site and two days off-site in two separate teams. The results were positive enough that in 2022, the district opted to make the four-day workweek permanent for its employees.

“In the end, it’s about progress, productivity and if you can get done what you did in either a 35 or 40-hour work week and you can do it over four days, then I think that’s all that really matters,” Guysborough CAO Barry Carroll told Public Sector Executive magazine in 2022.

“I think it’s made a big difference in people’s lives on a positive side. Mental health has improved, I think, because of that.”

In Guysborough’s case, employees ended up working fewer days, but longer hours. Prior to the trial, staff worked 36 hours per week. Now, they work 40. But other Nova Scotia organizations have seen benefits from their employees logging fewer hours. Cape Breton-based nonprofit New Dawn Enterprises gave its staff the option to work four days or five shorter ones, starting last June—a change that has since been made permanent.

The feedback from staff has been “overwhelmingly positive,” CEO Erika Shea told CBC’s Information Morning Cape Breton in November 2022. It has also helped with recruitment:

“We saw a real markable difference in the calibre of applicants to vacancies that we posted during the pilot, making it clear in our postings that this was something we were undertaking. And giving everyone more autonomy, freedom, flexibility, decision-making authority really seems to align with what we understand as being good for human beings.”

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