Some Thoughts on the Four Day Work Week

A few recent conversations and readings have swirled together to make me want to write about the four day work week. 

I should mention off the bat that I was very fortunate when I worked for the Saskatchewan Publishers Group to be on a four-day schedule (all three employees in the organization were) so these comments come from experience of how a four-day work week can operate in reality.

One of the things that prompted my musings was seeing an article on how Google treats its employees.  Google does a number of progressive things in terms of their workplace but arguably the most progressive of all is allowing employees to spend 1/5 of their time on personal projects.  Although not technically, the same as a four-day work week, in many ways this would be the same for all intents and purposes because the employees, with very little restriction, get to work on anything they want.  The downside is that Google owns the product if it becomes profitable.  I believe Google News and Orkut (which is their social networking site and is the second most popular in the world although barely known in North America) as well as many other Google services came about because of this 80/20 program. But overall, one of the big draws for people coming to Google is the opportunity to explore their own ideas rather than those of their bosses and supervisors. 

Would something similar work in libraries which are public institutions and not dedicated creating new products or increasing profits?  Well, that's another thing that led me to this post.  Shea recently got an e-mail updating her on a project that her floor at the hospital was the second workplace in Canada to participate in.  Called the “Human Becoming” study, it was a project where “nurses spend 80% of their salaried time in direct patient care and 20% of their salaried time on professional development” (which, as with Google, is fairly loosely defined.  They want you to do nursing-related PD of course but some of Shea's colleagues were apparently doing things like taking an art class or whatever to make them better, more well-rounded human beings and therefore, better employees.) 

The full results of the study from the first test site (which I believe was a Toronto hospital) are here. (PDF)

I should also note that Shea unfortunately wasn't able to participate in the study because we were heading to London just as it was being brought to her floor at the hospital. 

Anyhow, the study, both in the original location and on Shea's floor, have provided results that I think are to be expected – morale was higher among staff, patients felt better treated, there was an extremely low turnover among participants (including *zero* turnover in year two of the study which is unheard of in the nursing world) and so on. 

So could something like this work in libraries?  Of course – it's just a matter of people (the librarians, the trustees and other decision-makers) having the will to make it happen.  In my mind, I always link three female-dominated service professions – nursing, teaching and librarianship – as being fairly similar in many ways.  But for whatever reason, librarianship seems to be behind the other two in terms of having progressive workplace options.  (I should also add a Hammond disclaimer ™ that this is only a general impression I have and that I haven't had exposure to a lot of library systems' internal operating policies to know if this is something that happens in libraries across Canada, large and small.) 

I should also clarify – I'm speaking mainly of public librarianship when I say this.  In fact, I recently had a conversation with an academic librarian who admitted that because she was hired in the summer when many academic libraries are on much slower schedules or shut down completely, she got her first paycheque two weeks after being officially “hired” without having worked a single shift.  Talk about progressive – getting paid without working! 

Anyhow, here's a few examples of some of the options that one of these three professions has that librarianship doesn't.  It's from the nursing world as that's the one I'm most familiar with (Shea's a nurse, my mom is a nurse as are two of my aunts.)

Within nursing, there are all sorts of options for lines (ie. positions) that run from full-time every variation from 4/5, 3/5, 2/5 right down to 1/5 time. Beyond that, some nurses choose to work only night shifts.  Some work 12 hour shifts.  Some work 8 hour shifts.  Many job share a single full-time position.  And so on.  Of course, some of these are a reflection of the type of work that nurses do (not too many librarians are going to only work night shifts since not too many libraries are open all night.)   But you get my drift. 

I don't know as much about the teaching world but we're all familiar with the biggie – two months off every summer.  That's on top of 2-3 weeks at Christmas and a week at Easter along with a number of in-service days and so on.  Now before any teachers out there jump on me for making the “teachers don't work very hard” argument, that's not what I'm doing at all.  Teachers work damn hard when they are working.  But they do also have a number of benefits, especially in terms of time off that would be the envy of somebody working at a “regular” job (M-F year round with 3-4 weeks off per year total as opposed to the 10 or so weeks that teachers get.) 

What else inspired this post?  Oh, I saw a blog post on “The Four Day Work Week: 16 Reasons This Is An Idea Whose Time Has Come”  I think this guy is making the claim that we should move to four 10-hour days per week which isn't what I'm saying at all.  But still, many of those sixteen reasons apply if you're talking about simply lopping one day off your regular work week – a four day work weeks gives you more time with family, less consumption of non-renewable resources, and an INCREASE in productivity.  (What?  Yep, it's true.  I'm sure studies have been done but I know anecdotally that when I worked very similar jobs in Saskatchewan for four days per week and Alberta for five, I felt equally productive.  Of course, part of this was the Sask one was 32 hours per week and the Alberta one was 35 so the difference wasn't so great.  But still, I would think many of us would find that we were nearly productive if we came into work for four days per week instead of five, knowing that for those four days we would be more rested, energized, alert and so on. 

As this blogger quotes in his article:

“In 1930 famed cereal maker W.K. Kellog had this to say about his
decision to decrease his companies work week from 40 to 30 hours.

The efficiency and morale of our employees is so increased, the
accident and insurance rates are so improved, and the unit cost of
production is so lowered that we can afford to pay as much for six
hours as we formerly paid for eight.”

Many people seem to just assume that the five day, eight hour day work week is the way the world works.  But I think there is a natural progression – our great grandparents probably worked six days a week for 10-12 hours per day.  It was only during the last century that the standard forty-hour week came into existence.  Now that a new century is here, perhaps the time is ripe to make another leap as a society? 

The final part of this post that would've been a nice summary of what I'm talking about was a cartoon I came across on Reddit.  But I didn't save it at the time and can't find it again so you'll have to live with me describing it to you.

The first panel shows a harried businessman with a briefcase marching along with the blurb “Time = Money” rising above his head. 

The second panel shows a gravestone with a briefcase beside it and the inscription “Time > Money”. 

The point is this: no matter how much you love your job, there are more important things in life – time with your family or even just with yourself to do the things you love to do or need to do.  And a four day work week is a perfect way to give you more time for the important things in life. 

Comments 2

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Interesting thoughts.
    On the teaching part, I appreciate that you qualify “[t]eachers work damn hard when they are working” but I would like to suggest the time off isn't quite as rosy as you make it sound. In BC, anyhow, we have three weeks of paid vacation (two over winter and one in the spring) and ten weeks of unpaid time off…it's basically a seasonal lay-off. I would say about half of my colleagues (especially those of us less than 40) try to find other jobs over the summer months to pay the bills. The other half lives off of savings from the school year. Also, the in-service days are days that we (through our union) campaigned to have removed from our summer “time off” and sprinkled throughout the year. There was no additional financial compensation for these days when they became part of the school calendar, so really the in-service days are volunteer days. (In other provinces the history be different so I can't speak directly to other cases; in BC this happened in the '80s.)
    As for increased productivity when working four day weeks, there certainly are studies showing this. I can't give a precise reference off the top of my head but if you're motivated I know that there are references to these studies in The Soulful Science by Diane Coyle.
    BTW: I work half-time (~30 hrs/week) so that's how I have the time to post a comment! Like fully 50% of teachers in their first five years, however, I plan on a career change.

    Posted 03 Apr 2009 at 4:27 pm
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    I'm glad you didn't find the post where I said teachers tend to be more conservative that many other professions!
    Anyhow, I don't know much about how the world of teachers works here or in BC. But my understanding was that teachers (here) have the option to be paid for the 10 months they work or to split their pay over all 12 months so they always have a paycheque. I think the starting salary for teachers with an education degree (slightly higher if they have a second degree which many do) is around $40 000. So yeah, not the highest salary in the world but not too shabby either, especially if spread over 12 months so you don't feel that pinch in the summer or have to scramble for other work.
    You do raise good points about the burnout and also the expected volunteerism (volun-told) in terms of attending unpaid workshops (honestly don't know how they can get away without paying someone) or all the work teachers do at home or coaching/directing/instructing in extracurricular activities.
    If you have any good blogs/web sites that provide insight into some of the issues teachers (especially new ones) face, I'd love to see them.
    Thanks for commenting!

    Posted 19 Apr 2009 at 9:23 pm

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