The Way We Work: Should B.C. have a permanent long weekend?

The four-day workweek is gaining popularity across the globe, but while some B.C. organizations have implemented it happily, others in the business community remain unconvinced

Sonia Furstenau does not work a four-day week, but her BC Green Party staff does. “As soon as we got back in the legislature after the election,” the party leader says, “I worked with our caucus team and our staff has been on a four-day workweek since November 2020.”

Between her overlapping roles as party leader and MLA, Furstenau herself does not get a three-day weekend. But she says she still sees benefits. “I am the happiest boss, I think, in the whole place,” she says. “Our staff are healthy and happy. It’s a joyful place to work. And I would argue that the productivity that I’ve seen from this staff has been consistently impressive. We have demonstrated a four-day workweek can work in an environment like this.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that progressive politicians from Furstenau to Vermont senator Bernie Sanders are extolling the virtues of the four-day workweek. But they aren’t the only ones. The World Economic Forum cites a number of global studies, including a large project conducted by researchers at Cambridge, Oxford and Boston College, that showed no loss of productivity, plus greater employee satisfaction and retention. Forty-six percent of the executives involved in the study reported a stable level of productivity, while 34 percent reported a slight increase. Eighty-six percent of respondents said it was either likely or extremely likely that they would continue the policy at the end of the trial period.

YLaw, a Yaletown legal firm headed by Leena Yousefi, has been on a four-day week for the past four years. Yousefi’s experience at a previous law firm, where motherhood and health issues forced her to adapt to a four-day week (and accept a pay cut) convinced her to adopt a pilot program at her own firm. “I had to accept that I was going to lose 20 percent of my profits,” Yousefi says. It didn’t work out that way. “In the first year we added 30 percent to our revenues. In the following two years we doubled in size and doubled our net profits. Our retention rate has skyrocketed. We don’t have people leaving our firm unless it’s a family emergency and they have to move. Mental health, happiness, loyalty, productivity, focus are all much higher.”

Leena Yousefi, CEO, YLaw
Photo by Alia Youssef

Ian Hanington is senior writer and editor at the David Suzuki Foundation, which has operated on a four-day week for decades. He believes it’s an evolution of a societal shift that began long ago with the 40-hour week. “Henry Ford knew that going to a 40-hour workweek would not only improve productivity but would give people the time to use the products that they were selling,” Hanington says.

Not everyone is on board with the permanent long weekend. “If there was a country that could manage this,” says David Williams, vice-president of policy at the Business Council of B.C., “it wouldn’t be Canada.”

Williams points to a forecast by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) predicting that Canada will be the worst-performing economy out of the 38 advanced OECD countries. “Not just from 2020 to 2030, but also from 2030 to 2060,” he notes. “And the main reason is that, for most of that 40-year period, we are predicted to have the lowest growth in labour productivity.”

Based on the 2022 OECD figures, Williams says, “a German worker produces about US$69 of output per hour worked. American workers produce $76 per hour, whereas a Canadian worker on average produces only $53.”

Williams points out that the B.C. government’s own budget projections show a stagnant or shrinking GDP per person. “The budget says real GDP per person in 2022 was $60,277,” he says. “And in 2028, the forecast is $59,346. You’ve got this key indicator of living standards going sideways. And then you say, ‘Now let’s all work 20 percent fewer hours.’ That is not a good recipe.”

“The mistake is equating working less with being less productive,” Yousefi says. “In our experience, working fewer hours has meant more productivity. I’ve seen that in action. Since everybody wanted the pilot project to be a success, nobody took advantage. They were all invested in it.”

What the BC Green Party is proposing “is that governments create an incentive program for companies that are willing to try a three-year pilot, and get tax breaks in exchange,” says Furstenau. “You’re not doing this for free—you’re getting a financial benefit in exchange for data. Let’s  try to create an evidence and data informed understanding of how this can work  in B.C.”

Williams feels that if a four-day week is to happen, it should spread more naturally. “If businesses want to negotiate with their employees to work fewer days, they’re at liberty to do that now,” he says. “Under the current Employment Standards Act, they can come to some sort of agreement to average those 40 hours over different shift schedules, swing shifts or whatever—people can work longer days and have more days off. But this seems to be about reducing the maximum number of hours that you can work from 40 down to 32. If businesses aren’t choosing to do that now, that’s probably a clue that the gains to productivity are not there.”

Furstenau says it’s not about moving to a four-day, 40-hour week: “If the goal is to improve quality of life, it’s not about taking a 40-hour workweek and smashing it into four days. And the trials are really clear on this. This is about an eight-hour day, four days a week, to really achieve that quality of life improvement.”

Hanington says not all employees kick back on the extra day. “There are a lot of people who use their extra day to do other work. I used to teach at Douglas College on my Mondays. I’ve also used my days off to do freelance work. I know a lot of people that teach or do other work on their fourth or fifth day.”

Hanington points to a few environmental upsides, too. “Less commuting means fewer emissions,” he says. “It can mean less emissions from the building itself where people are working—it depends on the kind of organization. But a lot of studies have shown some real environmental benefits to shifting to a shorter workweek.”

“It hasn’t been a fairy tale,” Yousefi says. “I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. There have been challenges.” Among them are working out vacation time (three weeks of vacation means three calendar weeks, rather than 15 workdays spread out over four four-day weeks) and establishing that urgent circumstances can require extra days. But the benefits, Yousefi insists, far outweigh the difficulties, and she believes that a four-day week is, at the very least, worth a trial run. “If you’re not seeing reduced profit,” she says, “what’s holding you back?”

Healthier, happier employees do better work, she adds. The old description of an automotive lemon as a “Friday car,” built when weary workers just wanted to get out the door, still applies. “You don’t want a Friday car, or a Friday lawyer,” Yousefi says. “You want a Friday drink.”

Four Your Information

Several countries across the globe have implemented or are experimenting with a four-day workweek. These include:

Belgium: In 2022, Belgium became the first European country to legislate a four-day workweek. There was a catch, though: workers could choose between 9.5 hours a day over four days or the regular 8-hour, five-day week. In late  2023, the Brussels Times reported that, according to a survey by HR services company Acerta, only 0.8 percent of Belgian employees had transitioned to the full-time four-day week.

Iceland: Between 2015 to 2019, Iceland conducted the world’s largest pilot of a 35- to 36-hour workweek, according to Forbes. The study, which was heralded as a success, led to change in the country—some 90 percent of the working population now has reduced hours or other accommodations. 

Japan: In 2021, according to CNBC, the Japanese government’s yearly  economic policy guidelines included a recommendation that companies let employees opt for a four-day workweek. Microsoft Japan tested it out and saw a reported 40-percent increase in productivity, according to NPR