Want more long weekends? Be careful what you wish for

The five-day work week is here to stay

Want more long weekends? Be careful what you wish for.

Ake Wyman/Getty Images

Many Canadians are no doubt enjoying the countless pleasures of a long weekend—cottaging, camping or just staying home. Not everyone gets the first Monday in August off, of course. The civic holiday is statutory in some provinces, optional or absent in others. But those happy and relaxed folks who are enjoying a long weekend will soon find themselves in the midst of a shortened four-day workweek, as well. Is that a good thing, too?

Since the dawn of the Industrial Age and punishing six-day, 96-hour workweeks, the idea of making weekends longer and workweeks shorter has been a popular one with employees. Recently, a four-day/10-hour-per-day workweek has been promoted by employers as a way to cut costs, conserve energy and build a more productive and creative workforce. Making every weekend a long weekend certainly sounds like an idea whose time has come.

In the midst of the 2008 recession, for example, Utah put its 17,000 state workers on four 10-hour days in hopes of cutting its heating, cooling and maintenance costs. The Netherlands has widely embraced the concept as a way of avoiding layoffs. And earlier this year, the African nation of Gambia declared that all government employees will work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Thursday only. Giving workers Fridays off, President Yahya Jammeh said in announcing the change, “will allow Gambians to devote more time to prayers, social activities and agriculture.”

Picking up on Gambia’s back-to-nature lead, many North American work-life balance experts agree that a shorter but more intense workweek can raise productivity and improve employee satisfaction at home and on the job. Scientific American has called it a “no-brainer.”

Despite the surface appeal of 52 long weekends per year, however, there are many good reasons to expect the familiar five-day workweek will be with us for a long time to come.

A four-day workweek may increase the free time available from Friday to Sunday, but it also requires employees to work longer and harder the other four days. This is especially true for occupations that involve a fixed amount of work that must be accomplished on a weekly basis—inspectors, lab technicians, newsmagazine journalists, to name just a few. And regardless of workload, a 10-hour day is substantially longer than the current standard. This can be a significant burden, particularly for older workers.

After a three-year experiment ending in 2011, Utah reverted back to its traditional eight-hour workday, five days per week. A comprehensive audit by the state legislature found the program provided very few clear benefits in efficiency or job satisfaction. Unemployment insurance adjusters processed more claims per week, but child-care licensors managed fewer site visits. And everyone seemed tired. “Many employees reported a drop in productivity due to the long workday,” the auditors noted. The fact that most government offices were closed on Fridays made life more difficult for everyone else in the state.

It further appears that the cost savings were wildly overstated. While closing Utah’s 900 public buildings every Friday was expected to reduce utility costs by $3 million per year, the actual benefit was a mere $502,000. And from a broader environmental perspective, unless workers spend their days off at home in the dark, there’s no reason to believe overall energy consumption will necessarily decline with four-day workweeks. While there may be fewer commuters on the road Friday mornings and evenings, most people use long weekends as an opportunity to travel, shop and otherwise get around.

Utah’s results are by no means unique. Forty years ago, a shorter workweek was widely heralded as a portent of the future and proof of society’s inexorable progress. In 1972, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul A. Samuelson argued that the concept was a momentous social invention on par with double-entry bookkeeping.

Throughout the 1970s, many factories reported dramatic productivity increases immediately after switching to 10-hour days. Yet these improvements all appeared to vanish within a couple of years, as the novelty wore off. The same held for employee morale. And complaints about fatigue and general work unhappiness rose over time. By the 1980s, most businesses abandoned the practice in favour of flex time or telecommuting, although some shift work still operates on a four-day week today. The year-round long weekend may simply be too much of a good thing.

Perhaps the real magic to the long weekend lies in its rarity. With only a precious few scattered throughout the year, three-day weekends are something to be anticipated, planned and savoured. Having one every week would strip away this allure. And we’d all have to work harder the other four days.

So if you are able to enjoy the long weekend, good for you. And if you have to work Monday, cheer up: There’s always Labour Day.

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