Two steps forward


A couple of weeks ago, during the week leading up to the Family Day long weekend, a thought crossed my mind – “I really need this”. It was plainly obvious that my kids did as well. Certain times of year are doubtlessly more work-laden than others. Those of us who take time off in the summer or around the Christmas season know that these times are often lower in stress compared to other times of year. A long weekend is a welcome thing to look forward to. 

As I sat and thought about how welcome the upcoming long weekend would be, I wondered whatever happened to talks of a four day work week in Canada. The subject seemed to be popular a few years ago. By happy coincidence, a friend also mentioned, independent of my own thinking, that the family day weekend was relaxing and that a four day work week would be very welcome. 

In what is something of a rarity for me, I am divided on the idea of a four day work week. On the one hand, it seems like an idea rooted in privilege, since it only applies to certain industries (and above all else, office jobs). The idea behind a four day work week is not to cut anyone’s pay. Instead, the goal is to cut out an entire work day per week, while expecting the same overall productivity and same pay. In theory, this works because people who are given a permanent three day weekend see such an improvement in mental health, happiness, and job satisfaction that they actually work harder and more efficiently on the days that they do work. The theory seems to be holding up in recent trial studies on the efficacy of a four day work week. 

One problem with the idea is that there are certain jobs where productivity is measured in time, not in the tasks completed. For example, a fast food restaurant that requires a cashier to keep the restaurant open for five days cannot squeeze that cashier’s workload into four days and still expect to stay open for five days. The cashier needs to be physically present. Being at work so that the restaurant can open is what makes that employee valuable – the employer is paying for time spent at the cash register, and that is the primary measure of productivity. 

All this talk of “five day work week vs four day work week” decisions raises an important question – who is the arbiter of work-week-length decisions? A great many workers don’t follow the standard five day work week. Some employees – such as retail and restaurant workers – may still work five days per week, but with a schedule that includes weekends. Professionals such as health care workers are often expected to work a grueling schedule of 12 days on, two days off, having only every second weekend off to recuperate. A standard four day work week would mean nothing to these workers. In the case of retail and fast food workers, it would necessitate a reduction in pay. In the case of healthcare professionals, it simply wouldn’t be feasible – to suggest that doctors, nurses and PSWs could work harder than they already do is insulting, and nothing will ever change the fact that health care workers are needed 24/7 in some capacity or another. 

So who “officially” benefits from a four day work week? Bankers, lawyers and judges, and government office workers mostly. One could argue that teachers and other education workers would benefit, but not considering that they would be tasked with somehow teaching the same material 20% faster each day. And office workers would only be able to switch over if they have set tasks to work independently on. If answering calls or emails from the public during opening hours is included, it suddenly doesn’t work out so well for the employer. There is no more “efficient” way to answer phones or greet visiting customers. I hate to say it, but it seems like a four day work week only benefits those who are already privileged. I suppose factory workers could aim for the same output in four days as they currently put out in five days, working toward the promise of a four day week, but that would depend greatly on the nature of the product being manufactured. 

The theme of my writing in the past few months has been to avoid unnecessary negativity (for the most part), and so avoid it I shall. There is an old saying, “one step forward and two steps back”, meaning that sometimes when we make progress, we end up losing that progress and then some. I prefer to think of the four day work week as “two steps forward and one step back”. Yes, it would inevitably widen the gap between those with well paying jobs and those who earn minimum wage. However, progress for one labour group seldom leads to poorer conditions for another. Perhaps a standardized four day work week would change our thinking of what represents a fair balance of work and leisure, leading to changes in working conditions for people such as retail workers and healthcare personnel. 

Ah, to be well rested and happy. That should be our goal for every eager worker in our society, as long as everyone is doing their fair share to produce the goods and provide the services necessary to keep things running smoothly. I would certainly look forward to longer weekends in my role as an educator, but I suppose the joke is on me – there is no such thing as a weekend when it comes to the news!


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