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Putting Clients First: The Case for a 4-Day Work Week

  • 10 mins

Hustle Culture

In recent times, there has been a growing clamor for shorter working hours. It's amusing to reflect on the year 1930 when renowned economist John Maynard Keynes envisaged a future where people would work for three hours a day or fifteen hours a week. While the average number of hours worked per week has indeed dwindled over the past few decades, it's disconcerting that Americans are still dedicating roughly 37.8 hours per week to their jobs. Canadians, on the other hand, have seen only a modest reduction—from an average of 36.7 hours per week in 2000 to 35.7 hours in 2022.


Across the pond in Europe, the numbers are somewhat lower, owing to more generous paid time off and additional holidays. Nations such as the Netherlands, Austria, and Norway currently lead the pack in shorter working hours, with their workweeks ranging from 32.4 to 34.6 hours. However, it's important to note that these averages often include part-time workers, which can skew the data. To gain a clearer perspective, researchers have begun analyzing hours based on full-time employment at primary jobs.

The persistent toll of long work hours on people's lives and well-being has spurred a growing movement advocating for a four-day work week. This has prompted numerous countries to experiment with reducing work hours while maintaining existing pay and benefits. Notably, countries like Belgium, Portugal, and the United Kingdom have undertaken trials, yielding noticeable results.


Portugal's Groundbreaking Pilot Project

Portugal has emerged as a trailblazer in the realm of pilot projects. Perhaps you recall their pioneering stance on drug decriminalization, which notably succeeded in reducing overdose deaths. Building on this spirit of innovation, Portugal has also initiated a pilot program for a four-day work week, the details of which I will delve into shortly. For those interested in a comprehensive report on the matter, you can find it here.


To be fair, the economic dynamics of each country vary, but it's worth noting that 72% of Portuguese citizens currently endure workweeks exceeding 40 hours. When factoring in annual working hours, they find themselves in a situation strikingly similar to that of Canadians. The pilot project in Portugal initially involved 99 companies but was later narrowed down to 46. Although certain sectors were more eager to participate, the selection still represented a diverse range of industries, spanning from human health to auto services.


Exploring the Nuances

Diving deeper into the report from Portugal's pilot program, we uncover some intriguing details. It's easy to assume that only large corporations would entertain the idea of such an ambitious project. However, a surprising number of participating companies were smaller enterprises, with a workforce ranging from just one to ten employees. Alongside them, medium and large-sized companies with over a thousand workers also took part in this groundbreaking initiative.


Unveiling the Motives

While certain motives behind adopting a four-day work week may seem self-evident, such as reducing stress and burnout, there were also more nuanced motivations at play. Some companies sought to provide an enticing alternative to wage increases in a bid to enhance employee retention—an aspect I will later tie into the case for a four-day work week within the social services sector. Other driving forces included improving their company's image, fostering creativity, and stimulating innovation.


Current Progress

As of now, the project is well into its third phase and is slated for completion in November 2023. Encouragingly, companies involved have responded positively to the experiment, with 46 of them advancing to the second phase. The 26 companies that chose to withdraw cited a range of issues, from economic conditions to a belief that the change wouldn't yield sufficient benefits. Remarkably, though, even these participants expressed a favorable view of the project.


Global Initiatives and Triumphs

The United Kingdom stands as another noteworthy example, having embarked on a trial of the four-day work week, which has met with resounding success. In this instance, 61 companies participated, and the results are nothing short of impressive—showing a remarkable 71% reduction in burnout and a 48% increase in job satisfaction. Astonishingly, all these gains were accomplished while maintaining steady revenue and productivity levels. The momentum behind these pilot projects is showing no signs of slowing down, with Scotland poised to become the latest country to explore this innovative approach.


Canada's Call to Action

Although it may have flown under the radar for some, North America has also embraced pilot programs for reduced working hours, with several Canadian companies reaping the benefits. Notably, an employee from a Montreal-based firm noted heightened focus and fewer sick days as tangible advantages. However, experts assert that further studies are necessary, especially focusing on larger corporations, as the existing pilot programs have predominantly centered on smaller enterprises.

Enhancing the Case for a Four-Day Work Week in Social Services

  1. Fostering Deeper Community Engagement
  • Workers who can balance work and life effectively gain more time to connect with their community and engage in activities like volunteering. Weekday volunteering opportunities not only benefit organizations but also facilitate more meaningful interactions.
  • Workplace Benefit: Employees with stronger community ties can help your organization establish new connections and build robust social networks, opening doors to fresh partnerships and collaborations.people-socializing-and-networking-52738374
  1. Enabling Multifaceted Contributions
  • Building on the previous point, the extra time off empowers workers to explore new roles and take on additional challenges. Front-line workers, for instance, can venture into mezzo or macro-level work or volunteer for various causes.
  • Workplace Benefit: Strengthened connections across different levels and sectors enhance your organization's ability to foster cross-sector collaborations and engage in systems-level initiatives. Providing flexibility for personal growth and exploration equips employees with diverse skills, which they can bring back to your organization, enriching its capabilities.
  1. Enhancing Client Support
  • Personally experiencing a four-day work week at two different workplaces, I observed a remarkable improvement in both mental well-being and productivity. Front-line workers, in particular, engage with vulnerable clients, which can be emotionally taxing, necessitating time to recharge. This need for rejuvenation isn't exclusive to front-line roles; every type of work can be draining and requires periodic recovery. Clients deserve workers who are emotionally stable and capable of offering undivided focus and attention.
  • Workplace Benefit: Clients will experience greater satisfaction. Even if the quantity of clients served sees a slight decrease, the quality of care provided will rise. Over the long term, this enhanced quality will not negatively impact quantity, as reduced stress and burnout will make workers more efficient. Happier clients benefit not only individual workers but the entire team, reducing the need for teammates to apologize on others' behalf or rectify mistakes.

  1. An Innovative Wage Alternative
  • Non-profit organizations often grapple with budget constraints and the inability to raise wages to attract top talent. In such circumstances, what better way to support workers than by reducing working hours? If all performance metrics and client support levels remain consistent, why not explore the possibility of shorter workweeks?
  • Workplace Benefit: Non-profits, like any other business, compete for the best employees. If a highly skilled worker could potentially drive innovation within your organization but is deterred by a meager salary, you can remedy this by offering the flexibility of a four-day work week. In doing so, you not only secure top-tier talent but also provide an opportunity for your existing employees to learn and benefit from high-performing newcomers. The entire team reaps the rewards, not just the new hires.
  1. Addressing High Turnover
  • Non-profit organizations frequently grapple with high turnover rates, which is a challenge that demands attention rather than acceptance as the norm. Rather than conceding defeat, we should draw inspiration from other industries that offer competitive compensation alongside generous benefits. If we can't compete on salary alone, altering our work structure to accommodate a four-day work week is a viable alternative.
  • Workplace Benefit: In addition to reducing training time and minimizing costly HR activities, employees can form stronger teams and collaborate more effectively on long-term projects. This not only bolsters the internal dynamics of your team but also supports cross-sector collaboration when roles and team members remain consistent.

  1. Enhancing Reputation
  • A negative reputation can spread rapidly in any industry, but in social services, reputation holds particular significance as it can affect vulnerable clients. When clients hear about mistreated workers or perceive overworked and irritable staff, their faith in the system erodes.
  • Workplace Benefit: Non-profit organizations, including grassroots groups, heavily rely on word-of-mouth referrals. When clients engage with content and satisfied staff, they are more inclined to recommend their services to friends and family. This reduces the need for traditional marketing efforts and can foster stronger partnerships with other organizations, ultimately leading to more funding opportunities—an advantageous cycle that continues to grow.
  1. Supporting Families
  • Fields like social work are already gendered professions, often placing women in the challenging position of caring for both children and aging parents—a double burden. Thus, the four-day work week transcends mere mental health policy; it represents a social policy capable of reducing gender inequalities. Additionally, with an aging population in need of support, this policy becomes even more crucial.
  • Workplace Benefit: Empowering workers to better support their family members translates to fewer unexpected absences and sick days. Improved care for children and elderly family members can also reduce their reliance on social service support, collectively alleviating the strain on our social services.

  1. Meeting the Demands of the Younger Generation
  • Younger generations are challenging the prevalence of hustle culture and demanding improved working conditions, often with a willingness to change jobs or take breaks. Organizations that wish to thrive must adapt to the evolving expectations of these generations.
  • Workplace Benefit: Embracing diverse perspectives and attracting younger talent can stimulate innovation, potentially leading to technological advancements. Diverse teams are also better equipped to identify blind spots and rectify errors promptly, enhancing overall performance and adaptability.


A Necessary Journey

Transitioning to a four-day work week may pose challenges, but it's a change that must be embraced. This shift transcends mere economic policy; it's a matter of social justice. While I haven't delved into the environmental benefits here, I've taken the opportunity to emphasize the profound impact this change could have on our sector. It has the potential to directly and indirectly improve the lives of the most vulnerable clients, and they deserve nothing less. Our goal is to build a resilient organization, and that journey necessitates investing in our community and families.




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