Administrative staff at Saint Paul University in Ottawa transitioned to a four-day work week in July, the first step of this kind in Canada’s postsecondary realm. The four-month pilot project will see staff work a 28-hour week instead of the typical 35, with no change to pay, time off, or pensions.
While the pandemic revealed pain points in many workplaces, Jean-Marc Barrette, Saint Paul’s vice-rector for academic and research, said the idea for a major change at the school began years ago. “We were thinking about how we could improve the workplace, the climate, and the need for people to disconnect,” Dr. Barrette said. When COVID-19 became a factor and heightened that need, the plan was set in motion. Still, it took about eight months of consulting with the staff union to make it fit, said Carole Audet, Saint Paul’s associate vice-rector of talent, diversity, and culture.
In most current models of the four-day week, “it’s more of a compressed week, asking employees to put in more hours to compensate for the free day,” Ms. Audet said, but the school didn’t want to take that approach. “It has a nice impact on [employee] work-life balance. We recognize they have another life outside of these walls.”
Both Ms. Audet and Dr. Barrette acknowledged that the idea of having less time to complete tasks may have seemed stressful at first – but that’s where flexibility came in. Depending on their team and workflow, staff can decide which day of the week they’ll take off (usually Friday or Monday is chosen), which also ensures that services will run as usual.
Ms. Audet said the larger goal was also to create a culture shift; when she started her role, she talked to Dr. Barrette about using the KISS model (which stands for keep, improve, start, stop). “We’ve invited our managers and directors to have that [model] with their staff to see what they can do without,” she said. “From what I’m hearing so far, it seems to be working out well.”
A global trend
The four-day work week might have seemed like a pipe dream before the pandemic, but now it’s being piloted worldwide in both the public and private sectors. Much of this is driven by the disruption of the past two-plus years, which have seen millions of employees overworked, burnt out, or retiring early. Surveys have indicated that the majority of Canadian workers are at risk of burnout and felt overstressed at their jobs during the pandemic, in line with global figures. While the so-called “Great Resignation” hasn’t hit Canada as hard as the United States, a survey by the consulting firm Mercer in late 2021 found that more than 60 per cent of Canadian employees were considering leaving their current jobs, a steep increase from 2019.
Much has been written about the impact the pandemic had on students, but staff in educational environments have also felt the strain. An article in Nature outlined studies across the U.S. and Europe that have found burnout is drastically increasing among staff in academia; in some cases, the number of respondents stating they felt stressed has more than doubled since 2019.
Similar data doesn’t exist for the Canadian landscape, but anecdotally, Dr. Barrette said there has been an uptick in stress leaves at Saint Paul since the pandemic started, a trend his colleagues across school environments have also noted.
Nancy Pelletier, co-ordinator with Saint Paul’s registrar office, said she breathed a sigh of relief at the four-day week announcement. Like many administrative staff, she did not work from home during the pandemic, and at its height, going into the office was taxing and stressful. She said the change feels like, “a sign that that we were important – that they [leadership] know we went through a tough time.”
Advantages vs. drawbacks
Productivity, efficiency and employee satisfaction are all benefits of the four-day week, according to an organization known as 4 Day Week Global, which advocates for the change. Some private companies in Canada have made the switch, touting not just greater employee retention and satisfaction, but a competitive edge. Although it’s still early, Ms. Audet said Saint Paul has already seen that boost; a recent position, which normally would have garnered about five applicants, saw more than 20.
Scott Fowler, a communications manager with the school, said even though his days are consistently busier, he wouldn’t trade the four-day week. He said having more time to manage “external stress,” allows him to approach his workload in a more present way. “You’re coming in to work with a totally different mindset. Not that I wasn’t busy beforehand, but I feel much more up to the challenge.”
The four-day week obviously wouldn’t fit in all workplaces, and it can have drawbacks, as some employers may seek it as a way to reduce pay or provide fewer opportunities for enrichment. It’s also moved much slower in the public sector, where unionized environments require more careful navigating of collective bargaining agreements.
Overall, it’s a move that challenges the dominant paradigm of how we’ve been working for so long, and that can come with discomfort. “You have to get everybody on board,” said Mr. Fowler. “This is a major shift – it’s not just a new coffee machine in the cafeteria.”
After four months, Saint Paul leadership will evaluate feedback and bring the option to keep the four-day week when the union’s collective agreement is up for renewal, in the spring of 2023. As Dr. Barrette and Ms. Audet explained, it’s not just about attracting talent, but bringing greater satisfaction to current employees. “We are giving them some responsibility to own and manage their work week,” said Ms. Audet. “I think this is a great way to make them feel empowered.”