Three-Day-Weekends Should be Part of the Pandemic Recovery
Employment norms weren’t working before the pandemic – now's our chance to support work-life balance and promote gender equality.

Since physical distancing curtails out-of-province travel, the Tourism Industry Association of BC (TIABC) has floated the idea that workplaces should prioritize three-day-weekends so locals have more time to recreate near home.

The proposal should be part of a strong pandemic recovery plan. Not only is it an opportunity to stimulate a key industrial sector, it will help us move beyond “back to normal” toward #BetterThanNormal.

Employment norms weren’t working for the generations raising young kids before the pandemic – either to support work-life balance, or to promote gender equality.

Current practices harken back to outdated post-war assumptions that households will have one person specialize in breadwinning while the other specializes in caregiving and domestic work. Most families no longer operate this way.

Feminism is one part of the reason.

So too is the fact that wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of living, and household incomes for young couples have stalled since 1976 even though far more young women contribute employment income than in the past. For Canadians under 45, two earners are often required to carve out a standard of living that is falling behind what one earner could achieve a generation ago. Single-parent families are especially challenged.

Although the rise of working parents is here to stay for good reasons, must we accept that “full-time work” means 40 hours per week for 49-50 weeks per year?

Although Canadians say we espouse family values, Canadian workplace standards mean the typical Canadian employee works 300 hours per year (over 8 weeks) more than the typical Dutch, Norwegian and German employee for about the same average income as in these other countries. While high housing prices in cities across Canada make this commitment to the labour market understandable, it now contributes to a major time squeeze at home, especially when employees have young children.

Employment norms weren’t working for the generations raising young kids before the pandemic – either to support work-life balance, or to promote gender equality.

It’s time to adapt. Just as the TIABC is proposing, we could tinker with the definition of full-time work, adjusting it closer to 35 hours/week on average over a year, rather than 40-plus. An extra 5 hours per week, times two in a dual-earner household, can make a big difference when it comes to mitigating the time squeeze. Even with this change, we’d still be working well over a hundred hours more per year than is the norm in the Netherlands, Norway and Germany.

There are ways to do this that are good for employers and employees alike. We could adapt overtime and EI premiums paid by employers to make it less costly for businesses to use employees up to 35 hours per week, and more costly for hours thereafter.

For employers, there are productivity gains to be made from this switch. Although typical Dutch, Norwegian and German citizens may work fewer hours per year than Canadians, the US Bureau of Statistics reports their productivity per hour is higher in these countries than in Canada.

With new incentives, employers could reduce the work-week by 5 hours on average for the half of men and the third of women who currently work more than 40 hours per week. In some cases, employees may trade a bit of after-tax income (or better yet, future wage increases) in order to gain four more weeks of time per year. In negotiation with employers, this time could be taken in chunks, or as earned hours away from work each week throughout the year.

Changes to the Canada Child Benefit could ensure any reduction in employment hours does not reduce income in low-earning families, which may be especially important for some lone parent households. If implemented with an immediate reduction of childcare fees to no more than $10 a day, families with preschool age kids would generally find their after tax-income the same, or better off – plus have the extra time with family when they really need it.

Physical distancing has eroded economic security for so many. It has also reminded many that we need more time away from work to enjoy better balance, to take care of our mental and physical health, to care for and build better relationships with family and friends, and to contribute to our community life.

Shorter full-time work norms can serve these purposes, and advance productivity for employers. They should be part of any economic recovery plan that aims not just to get “back to normal,” but to #BetterThanNormal.

Paul Kershaw
About
Dr. Paul Kershaw is a Professor in the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health, and the Founder of Generation Squeeze.
Three-Day-Weekends Should be Part of the Pandemic Recovery
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