The shorter work week: An idea whose time has finally come

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This column is an opinion by Jon Peirce, a freelance writer based in Gatineau, Que. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

At a time when pandemic-related positives of any sort are hard to find, it was good to see that some Ontario employers have been responding by bringing in a four-day work week. A number of these initiatives were chronicled in a recent CBC News article.

One such employer is Heather Payne, founder and CEO of Juno College, a Toronto vocational school. Over the next few months, Payne’s employees will be transitioning to a four-day week, while continuing to be paid for five days. The purpose of the change is to “boost productivity, prioritize workers’ health, and … retain talent.”

Welcome as this development is, one has to wonder why the message has taken so long to get through. To say the issue isn’t new is to understate. I, for one, was actively researching it through the 1990s.

The first thing I learned was that the issue was far from new even then.

Good results in the 1930s

Enlightened American organizations like the Kellogg Cereal Company had introduced a 30-hour week — with good results — as early as 1930. For its part, the American labour movement and its congressional allies had succeeded in getting the Black-Connery bill, legislating a 30-hour week, through the U.S. Senate in 1933, at which point only determined arm-twisting by the Roosevelt administration kept Black-Connery from passing the House of Representatives.

When I attended a 1997 conference on shorter hours put on by a Toronto-based organization called 32 Hours, I found that North American labour movements seemed to be going backwards on the issue of work hours. Not a single policy proposal I heard put forward even raised the possibility of a legislated shorter work week, like those already in effect in Germany and the Netherlands, or of increases to overtime pay premiums, which would have given employers an incentive to hire more people rather than asking existing staff to put in overtime.

How strange that more people hadn’t (and haven’t) cottoned to the connection between shorter hours and increased productivity. 

The Kellogg’s experience showed that a shorter week boosts productivity even in factory settings, where there may still be some sort of direct relationship between the number of person-hours of labour put in and the quantity of goods produced. That effect would be far greater in today’s workplaces, where most work with their brains and it’s pointless even to think about a linear relationship between hours worked and the quantity of goods (or services) produced.

Added stress caused by computers

By the 1980s, it was becoming apparent that office work done on computers was significantly more intense than the same work done on typewriters, as had been the case previously. The added stress caused by working with computers had led unions to negotiate collective agreement provisions allowing hourly breaks and providing free annual eye exams for computer operators, among other things. The pandemic-driven replacement of many in-person meetings by Zoom sessions has only served to aggravate that intensification, leading to such stress effects as headaches, eyestrain, and stiff necks.

Managers who think they can get eight good hours a day out of brain workers are kidding themselves. Far better five or even four of a brain worker’s best hours than eight punctuated by coffee breaks, trips to the water cooler, checking of email and Facebook pages, etc., etc.

A substantial hours reduction would benefit not just workers themselves but their families, who would then have more time with their parents or spouses. It would also be of significant benefit to communities, since in the hours no longer needed for work people could volunteer at food banks, participate in local arts organizations, or help their communities in a myriad of other ways.

Assembly line pioneer Henry Ford was no saint. But at least he compensated his workers, by shorter hours, for the greater intensity of their labour. Today’s workers, confronted by one wave of intensification from traditional computer technology and a second wave from Zoom and its ilk, deserve nothing less. Their health and that of our society as a whole is at stake.


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