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This Crisis Makes Clear: We Need a Four-Day Work Week, Now

A shorter work week could help create a more thriving society. But to work it must be equitable.

Workers at an outdoor furniture manufacturer in Illinois make personal protective equipment. For some workers, the demand for their labor has skyrocketed during the pandemic and for others the opposite has happened. ,Scott Olson/Getty Images

The pan­dem­ic inspired politi­cians and coun­try lead­ers across the world to speak in favor of a reduced work week. New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter Jacin­da Ardern has brought it up, as has San­na Marin, the Prime Min­is­ter of Fin­land. Germany’s largest trade union, a met­al­work­ers’ union, is push­ing the idea hard, with sup­port from the country’s Fed­er­al Min­istry of Labor and Social Affairs. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is con­sid­er­ing a wage sub­sidy pro­gram to short­en work­ers’ hours.

Accord­ing to a study by the Cana­di­an Labor Eco­nom­ics Forum, low-income work­ers in Cana­da expe­ri­enced both the sharpest decrease in work­ing hours and the sharpest increase. That’s because the Cana­di­an Emer­gency Response Ben­e­fit (CERB), a month­ly stipend of 2,000 Cana­di­an dol­lars, was avail­able to any­one who lost work due to the pan­dem­ic, and whose month­ly earn­ings were now 1,000 Cana­di­an dol­lars or less. But it didn’t apply to any­one who vol­un­tar­i­ly left their job.

Among those who kept their jobs were essen­tial work­ers, most of whom are paid para­dox­i­cal­ly low wages — they saw their jobs become more demand­ing and more dan­ger­ous. For non-essen­tial work­ers whose work shift­ed online, where their work­ing hours did increase, this may have been mit­i­gat­ed by the decrease in com­mute time. Every­one in between — peo­ple whose pan­dem­ic-relat­ed job loss brought them under the $1,000 thresh­old — sud­den­ly had more income and more time. Some actu­al­ly saw an increase in income, as the CERB amounts to more than a month­ly wage at the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage. Leah Gazan, a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment in the province of Man­i­to­ba, has put forth a motion to con­vert the CERB into a uni­ver­sal basic income with­out cut­ting oth­er social sup­port networks. 

Politi­cians aren’t alone in think­ing about the ben­e­fits of short­er hours. Among the loud­est pro­po­nents for cut­ting hours is a New Zealand hedge fund that tri­aled a four-day week and saw an increase in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Oth­er firms have seen sim­i­lar results, espe­cial­ly in office set­tings. Employ­ees work­ing exces­sive hours are tired, stressed and more vul­ner­a­ble to men­tal ill­ness or dis­eases. Work­ing exces­sive hours also means we strug­gle to meet our own needs — like social­iz­ing, exer­cis­ing, eat­ing prop­er­ly or even hav­ing hob­bies. As a result, work­ers com­mod­i­fy things they would oth­er­wise do for fun, like car­ing for chil­dren or cook­ing din­ner. They hire migrant work­ers for pal­try wages or buy ready-made din­ners assem­bled by under­paid fac­to­ry workers.

A rad­i­cal short­er work week goes fur­ther than ask­ing whether we can cut hours with­out cut­ting prof­its. It chal­lenges the cen­tral role of work in our lives and asks what life could look like if the ben­e­fits of indus­tri­al­iza­tion were redis­trib­uted rather than accu­mu­lat­ed at the top. 

When the pan­dem­ic hit, Erin Socall lost her job as a pri­vate chef in Toron­to. She gave her­self a day off, and then start­ed bak­ing full-time. She made bread for peo­ple whose liveli­hoods were affect­ed by the cri­sis, deliv­er­ing up to 20 loaves across the city sev­er­al times a week. This helped sup­port a heav­i­ly over­bur­dened food secu­ri­ty sys­tem, and also helped her escape the unat­tain­able stan­dards set by her indus­try that wore on her phys­i­cal and men­tal health. Astrid Mohr, a stu­dent at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty, also start­ed bak­ing: She learned how to make crois­sants, and start­ed sell­ing them to give the pro­ceeds to food banks in the city. Both Mohr and Socall found them­selves with time on their hands as the pan­dem­ic began. It’s that leisure time that allowed them to recon­sid­er the pur­pose of their work, and build work­ing habits that are health­i­er and more sus­tain­able for them.

Cook­ing at home is one exam­ple of what Auton­o­my, a U.K.-based think tank that stud­ies work, calls ​low-car­bon soft” alter­na­tives to con­sumerist behav­ior. Its 2019 report on the short­er work week found that reduc­ing work­ing hours would reduce car­bon emis­sions and improve gen­er­al soci­etal wel­fare. It would reduce com­mute traf­fic and part­ly replace it with walk­ing or bik­ing — more low-car­bon soft activ­i­ties. Auton­o­my also lays out a tran­si­tion­al path that pro­pos­es a frame­work for com­pa­nies to ensure that increased prof­it leads to bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions for employ­ees. An exam­ple is the cre­ation of a gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tion that would ensure that tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion, like the cre­ation of new machin­ery that makes pro­duc­tion faster and eas­i­er, trans­lates to bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions instead of mass lay­offs and increased profit.

Could we replace the whole food sup­ply chain with home-baked bread? Unlike­ly. But we could reduce depen­den­cy on labor-inten­sive, high-ener­gy prod­ucts like microwave lasagna. Giv­en that Amer­i­cans waste up to 40% of food, we could fur­ther reduce indus­tri­al food pro­duc­tion. Our cities could pro­mote local food pro­duc­tion like com­mu­ni­ty-sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture and urban farm­ing.

We could imag­ine a food pro­duc­tion sys­tem that relies much less on indus­tri­al­ized agri­cul­ture. Fac­to­ry farms, whose work­ing con­di­tions and envi­ron­men­tal impact have been under increased scruti­ny dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, could be replaced with small­er alter­na­tives that are more friend­ly to work­ers and the envi­ron­ment. Food fac­to­ry work­ers who also ben­e­fit from the short­er work week could work less and in bet­ter con­di­tions to sup­ple­ment the local sup­ply chain as need­ed. That food sys­tem would also bet­ter resist crises like Covid-19, and improve food secu­ri­ty for peo­ple who, under the cur­rent econ­o­my, can’t always access food.

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Food pro­duc­tion is the most tan­gi­ble exam­ple of the ben­e­fit of a short­er work week, but there are count­less oth­ers. By giv­ing peo­ple more time to care for them­selves and each oth­er, a short­er work week pol­i­cy would increase over­all health in soci­ety, and par­tial­ly reduce the bur­den of health­care work­ers. We’d need few­er desk work­out gad­gets, less cof­fee, and few­er med­ica­tions to treat sleep depri­va­tion. Once we start point­ing out indus­tries that prof­it off of the col­lec­tive exhaus­tion caused by over­work, it’s hard to stop.

But if our tran­si­tion to a short­er work week con­tin­ues to evolve with­out a social frame­work behind it, it will con­tin­ue to repro­duce the same inequal­i­ties we have seen dur­ing this cri­sis. Mohr, a stu­dent with a finan­cial­ly sta­ble fam­i­ly that housed and fed her dur­ing the cri­sis, was able to take this time to inten­sive­ly learn a new skill. Oth­ers with the same inter­ests, more needs, and per­haps more knowl­edge didn’t have that opportunity.

Cheyenne Sun­dance, who runs a social-jus­tice ori­ent­ed urban farm in Toron­to named ​Sun­dance Har­vest,” spoke to this issue. ​Some­one who has the priv­i­lege of being able to go to their par­ents’ land … can start a farm much, much soon­er than some­one who lives in a high-rise apart­ment,” she notes. Some­one with less income is more like­ly to live in a small apart­ment with­out access to land or space to grow food, and might have to wait years to access a plot.

The ben­e­fits of a short­er work week won’t reach those who need it the most: peo­ple with low­er incomes, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black, Indige­nous and peo­ple of col­or, unless it’s accom­pa­nied by social poli­cies that very inten­tion­al­ly include them. For instance, it’s impor­tant to con­sid­er poli­cies that would return land to Indige­nous peo­ple and sup­port tra­di­tion­al agriculture.

In order for a short­er work week to cre­ate struc­tur­al change, we have to under­stand it as nei­ther a panacea nor a reform, but rather a re-imag­in­ing of the pur­pose of work and leisure, and a re-envi­sion­ing of the role that pro­duc­tiv­i­ty plays in our lives.

Anna Bian­ca Roach is a fel­low at the Toni Sta­bile Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism at the Colum­bia School of Jour­nal­ism. She writes about top­ics includ­ing social move­ments, gen­der and labor.