Opinion - Maggy Burns: Four-day work week a recipe for restoring natural balance

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald on Oct. 1, 2022.

We’re making an unholy mess of this world. 

We don’t mean to, but we are. We’re good people. We work hard, we produce quality work we’re proud of and if we’re lucky, we make good money and live well. 

But it seems the harder we work, the worse things get. The climate is in crisis, the rich get obscenely rich while more and more of our neighbours experience homelessness, and the majority of us spend our days working ourselves to death. 

We all want more time. We dream of it: more time to reconnect with people we love, get outside into nature and enjoy the beauty of this planet we call home. Time to relax, create something beautiful of our own — whether it’s a garden or a feast or a work of art — instead of feeding the machine that is destroying things. 

So many of our lives are lived inside a hamster wheel, working more to earn more to spend more on more things. 

As the executive director of a leading Nova Scotia environmental charity, let me state for the record that even those dedicated to work they find crucial and meaningful can fall into this trap — if anything, it makes them more vulnerable to overwork and burnout, especially given the challenging nature of our work to create a better future for us and the generations to come.  

But there’s good news. Really good news. Plenty of studies over the years, including E.F. Schumacher’s seminal Small is Beautiful and a Nova Scotia classic called Working Time and the Future of Work in Canada, show working less is good for the economy. That’s because what truly motivates us is not those forgettable possessions, or the money that buys them, but the chance to develop and express our abilities. 

This wisdom has been known for decades, with various researchers and advocates making the case for a four-day work week, which lowers stress, reduces the environmental impact of commuting, and actually has been shown to increase productivity.

It’s taken us too long to get here, but plenty of institutions and organizations are finally implementing the four-day work week, including the Ecology Action Centre, starting Oct. 3. Joining us in this radical departure from the status quo are Impact Organizations of Nova Scotia, New Dawn Enterprises, and the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design. Together we’re living our values. 

We’re embarking on a nine-month pilot and with the help of Stephanie Gilbert at Cape Breton University and Change Lab Action Research Initiative (CLARI) we’re monitoring results for all four organizations in terms of staff satisfaction and productivity. Weekly pay rates will remain the same, but for fewer hours.  

Nothing like a global pandemic to spark change. Although COVID has presented new challenges, the struggle for a better world is not new to the EAC. A four-day work week — 30 hours instead of 37.5 — is a way for us to be an organization that cares about our people and our planet. As a non-profit, we’ve always worked hard to keep our compensation fair. But with the rapidly rising cost of living, we need to find new ways to attract and retain highly qualified people. Not personnel, but people. 

We can’t compete with the public or private sectors on salary, but we can support the more human aspects of people’s needs, not only as workers but as humans seeking the satisfaction of being their best selves — in a workflow, more efficient and creative, better at prioritizing — and their creative and extracurricular endeavours with family, community and the natural spaces we work so hard to protect. 

Change is always hard, but we’re a creative organization with the ability to experiment and learn. We also have the benefit of using successful models, like Iceland’s, where 86 per cent of the workforce is on a four-day week, the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, and other environmental organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation — which led the way back in the 1990s — EcoSuperior in Thunder Bay, and Greenpeace. 

People at these organizations have reported feeling more productive, more focused during the day, attending fewer meetings for less time, taking fewer breaks during the day, and having better mental health, quality of life and work-life balance. 

In our planning process, people at the EAC were excited for the chance to garden, cook, pursue artistic interests, nurture relationships with loved ones — especially children in their care — and of course, enjoy the bountiful natural world we’re fighting to protect.

Maggy Burns is the executive director of the Ecology Action Centre, which celebrated 50 years of environmental action and advocacy in 2021. 

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