PERSPECTIVE: Reduced-hour work week feasible for some

Originally published by Saltwire on Jan. 12, 2024

By Annika Voltan, Erika Shea, Lori Burke and Maggy Burns

It’s tough to make enough money to support a good quality of life. We are facing a crisis of inequality, where billionaires are getting richer and the average worker struggles to keep up with a rising cost of living.

The community impact sector, which employs around 19,000 people in Nova Scotia, faces unique and additional challenges.

In spring 2023, out of 224 nonprofits and charities focused on addressing social and environmental problems, 48 per cent reported difficulties attracting qualified candidates and 68 per cent reported difficulties retaining staff, both due in part to expectations around wages and benefits. More than half experienced competition from other sectors, and burnout is a systemic problem.

At the start of 2024, we find ourselves in a moment that calls for a collective and broad transformation, and we have an idea of where to begin: moving away from an outdated model of how much we work each week.

Over the past two years, Impact Organizations of Nova Scotia, New Dawn Enterprises, the Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design and the Ecology Action Centre each implemented four-day work week pilots and have since switched to a permanent reduced-hour work week.

The four-day work week — with employees working fewer hours for the same pay — makes it possible for employers to increase their total compensation package without significant additional financial costs. Thanks to data collected by Stephanie Gilbert at Cape Breton University throughout the joint pilot, we know the effort is worthwhile for staff and organizational culture.

For example, at Impact Organizations of Nova Scotia, there has been no significant change in staff-reported difficulty in keeping up with workload. At the same time, maintaining a work/family balance has become easier and perceptions of co-worker respect have increased.

At the Ecology Action Centre, there has been no significant negative change in perceptions of workload or helping behaviours (ability and willingness to help co-workers). Instead, there has been a noted decrease in stress, intent to quit and burnout.

Organization-level impacts

The reduced-hour work week has also changed how each organization operates.

At the Ecology Action Centre, there has been a huge culture shift. While working with the same fierceness as always, staff are also collectively pushing back on the dehumanizing urgency of capitalism.

At the Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design, the process has prompted other initiatives like undertaking a compensation review and developing a leadership team to support the executive director’s workload. Staff have noted that these changes help make the centre a place they want to stay long term.

At Impact Organizations of Nova Scotia, similarly, employees have reported that the policy has made them less likely to look for work elsewhere. Meanwhile, job openings that have come up are attracting more qualified applicants.

At New Dawn, job applicants have likewise been higher calibre. Supporting staff well-being while meeting the needs of the seven sectors New Dawn serves is a work in progress. However, the modest challenges of the reduced-hour work week are far preferable to the existential challenges of burnout and overwork.

How to make it work for you

If your plans for 2024 include implementing a four-day work week at your organization, here are some practical steps we found helpful.

Start with a pilot and a mindset of experimentation. Have employees sign a confirmation of their understanding of the pilot, including its expectations, duration and the possibility that it won’t become permanent. A four-day work week may not fit your organization’s needs, but you may discover that another structure might like a four-day week once a month, every two weeks or in the summer. Embrace this spirit of learning.

Communicate clearly and often with the community you serve – via social media, mail, email and posters – well before you start your new policy and tell them why you are trying it. Remind them when it starts and whenever changes happen.

Have conversations before and throughout the process to help staff learn, reflect and support new standards and practices.

Consider how to adjust the length and frequency of internal meetings. Get clearer about what work you are focused on and what to let go of, strategically and with compassion. Trust that your employees can manage their responsibilities, too.

If your organization will stay open to the public more than four days a week, determine a fair group agreement and clear schedule for how this work will be divided throughout the year.

Although the 40-hour work week might seem like a natural default, it is not. Just as society adapted from a 55-hour to 40-hour work week, so too will we adapt to a world in which we’ve taken a crucial step toward a better balance between our work and non-work lives and selves.

Annika Voltan is the executive director of Impact Organizations of Nova Scotia. Erika Shea is the president and CEO of New Dawn Enterprises. Lori Burke is the executive director of Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design. Maggy Burns is the executive director of the Ecology Action Centre.


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