When we started the David Suzuki Foundation in 1990, we implemented a four-day, 34-hour workweek. Staff consistently say it’s made their lives better, giving them time to rest, pursue other interests, explore nature, volunteer, enjoy the company of family and friends, and so much more.
Life isn’t about making more money so we can keep buying more stuff; it’s about having time to do things that enrich our lives. In the face of multiple crises — pandemic, climate and biodiversity — we need to consider new societal and economic ideas that promote human well-being and help us live within Earth’s limits, rather than endlessly chasing a consumerist dream based on the illusory premise that a finite planet can support endless growth.
A four-day workweek won’t cure society’s woes. In fact, you’d think we’ be down to three days by now, as rapid technological advancement and global trade have upended everything about the way we work since the standard five-day workweek was implemented after the Second World War!
Evidence confirms the Foundation’s experience: four-day workweeks are good for employers and employees, boosting employment levels and increasing performance and motivation. They’re also beneficial to health and well-being, resulting in cost savings from reduced sick time. Reduced work hours, flexible schedules and telecommuting can also cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Many people have altered their work practices during the pandemic — working from home, often with flexible schedules, using technology for meetings and communication. Not everyone can or should work from home or alter schedules, but many can.
The pandemic has exposed flaws in our systems, but it’s provided opportunities to find better ways. Its shown change is possible. We need to start thinking about what an economy can do for us, not what we must do for it (which apparently includes sacrificing your life, if you consider the rush in some jurisdictions to “open up the economy” in the midst of a pandemic that still isn’t well understood by scientists and medical experts).
Is the purpose of work to continuously extract and consume resources so we can keep replacing our products as they become obsolete — at the expense of all those who will come after us? Or is it to ensure that we meet our needs for sustenance, shelter and well-being as individuals and societies so that we can contribute to the common good?
Transforming work-life balance through a well-being lens can lead to significant health benefits, contribute to gender equality, improve work redistribution and have important environmental benefits. Rethinking how we work is crucial, and a four-day workweek, guaranteed sick days, minimum vacation time and greater flexibility are good steps toward making work better for people and the planet.
The four-day week is becoming especially popular as people consider a post-pandemic world. That’s because it works. Utah gave its government workers a four-day workweek from 2007 to 2011 (it ended with a change in government), and concluded it saved $1.8 million in energy costs within the first 10 months and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about 10,900 tonnes a year.
A University of Liverpool brief on how the city can respond to the COVID-19 crisis confirmed the benefits of working four days, in part by looking at European nations that have reduced work hours. The researchers caution that governments and unions must help ensure that overall wages and living standards aren’t reduced, and that “productivity gains from advances in fields like automation are distributed amongst the workforce rather than amassed by the owners of machines.”
It’s in part up to the federal government to facilitate this shift in the private sector, as change in the federal public sector is often slow. Municipal governments can also signal the change. Vancouver city workers once had a four-day workweek.
Over the years, it’s taken a lot of sacrifice and hardship to change work practices — from slavery and child labour to 12-hour, seven-day workweeks with few benefits to our current system, another relic of the previous century. It shouldn’t be that difficult this time, as advantages to business and industry are as great as those to individuals and society. And the need for change has never been more evident.
Let’s take the first step to new ways of working by adopting a four-day workweek now!
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.