Thunder Bay

This leader shifted her organization to a 4-day work week. She says she has no plans to go back

Staff at EcoSuperior in Thunder Bay, Ont., now work a 32 hour 'flex' week. Even with the shift to the four-day week, staff are still paid the same as they were when they worked a 35 hour week.

Executive director of EcoSuperior in Thunder Bay, Ont., says the shift makes workplace more equitable

Sue Hamel is the executive director at EcoSuperior in Thunder Bay, Ont. She says a four day work gives people a chance to slow down and not make decisions out of convenience, which she believes can be better for the environment. (Supplied by Sue Hamel)

Ashley Priem hadn't gone horseback riding since she was a kid, even though it was something she loved to do growing up.

But since her workplace switched to a four-day work week last year Priem finds she's actually able to carve out some hours in her busy schedule to revisit things she's had to sacrifice in her adult life.

"It's really had an effect on my mental health for sure. Just not always feeling stressed or rushed through the week to get everything done in a two-day period," said Priem, who is a program director at EcoSuperior in Thunder Bay, Ont.

"It's allowed me enough time to do some activities and hobbies that I hadn't done for years, which has been super," she said.

Staff at EcoSuperior now work a 32-hour flexible, or 'flex', week which gives employees the opportunity to decide how they might make up their hours from Monday to Friday. Most employees work eight hour days from Monday to Thursday.

Even with the shift to the four-day work week, staff are still paid the same as they were when they worked a 35-hour week.

"It's not a cost saving measure, it's actually what I call a value added measure," said Sue Hamel, who is the executive director at the not-for-profit in the northwestern Ontario city.

While the idea of a four-day work week isn't necessarily new, Hamel said she was inspired to finally pitch it to the organization's board of directors as the COVID-19 pandemic began and as the workforce began to adapt to the changing times.

Ashley Priem says a four day work week at the beginning of her career may have changed her ability to go back to work after having kids. (Supplied by Ashley Priem)

"It was perfect time for everyone really to rethink how they work, where they work," she said. "Rethinking our systems, and ideally also really consider the the health and wellbeing of our staff."

"Considering a four-day work week just makes complete sense given the kind of change we're trying to bring, we're trying to bring in a whole new paradigm. And that means that we're living well with each other and with the living landscape," Hamel added.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations and businesses across Canada to rethink their priorities and shorter work weeks are gaining traction.

Other companies experimenting with a four-day work week include Toronto-based recruitment firm The Leadership Agency; Tulip Inc., a software company in Kitchener, Ont.; and a small municipality in Nova Scotia. Iceland's capital started a pilot as far back as 2015 that involved 2,500 people

More rest allows for more creativity, productivity 

For EcoSuperior in Thunder Bay, the benefits of the work week change has been even better than what Hamel was expecting, and she notes the most successful part has been the improvement of mental and physical health among the entire staff, including herself.

Productivity has actually improved even with the shortened work hours, Hamel said, and the hurdle of meeting the needs of community partners on Friday or weekends is managed with the "flex" schedule they've created.

That schedule not only adds a competitive edge to EcoSuperior, but also makes it more equitable, according to Hamel.

"Interestingly, looking at workplaces around the world of places that have tested or moved permanently toward a four-day work week, the research has been showing that the group of employees that benefit the most is mothers," she said.

Priem has been with EcoSuperior since the 1990s, and said having the option of a four-day work week could have really changed her ability to go back to work as she began to have kids while working at the organization.

She said she took a total of nine years off work to raise her children.

"It was important for me to be home with them when they were younger so I actually opted to take an extended leave without pay, which of course has financial and economical impacts, and then I was part time when the kids started going to school," Priem said.

Culture of urgency

The impact the four-day work week has on work-life balance is a relationship Mackenize Barnett, a PhD student at Lakehead University, says deserves more attention. She's studying the impacts of the shift with EcoSuperior. 

Barnett worked with EcoSuperior as a third party researcher during the 11-month pilot program, to study the impacts of the four-day work week on a psychological level.

She said while an increased sense of energy was expected with increase in rest time, some findings, such as greater creativity among staff, came as a surprise.

Mackenzie Barnett is a PhD student in the faculty of psychology at Lakehead University. Dr. Mirella Stroink has been advising Barnett on a study of EcoSuperior's implementation of a four day work week. (Supplied by Mackenzie Barnett)

"I'm wondering if the creativity is linked to staff having to find new ways to manage their time, having to use creative strategies to be able to get the work they wanted to get done," she said.

"So there's an interesting relationship there that we don't fully understand but we're really excited to see that sort of finding," Barnett continued.

The pilot also provided more insight into a "culture of urgency" among staff, and more largely among the workforce as a whole.

Barnett said staff being overwhelmed with both personal and career tasks can lead to many people making decisions out of convenience. But, with a four-day work week, employees have more time to find balance.

"So that's extended into a new way of approaching work, which is a lot more intentional and staff are finding meaningful than having this constant sense of urgency and needing to do things right now," she said.

LISTEN: Four day work week studied in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Barnett said the pilot also demonstrated when people have more time to rest at no expense, they're more likely to participate in activities that also feed into the community, and even the economy.

"Whether it's for environmental causes or just social and community benefits, more generally, people just have more time to give to others in this third day of their weekends," she said.

Barnett said the science behind the relationship of the four-day work week to personal lives, families and to communities is just starting to grow.

She said she'll continue the research with others at Lakehead University and hopes to share more information in the coming months, along with tool kits for other organizations to make the switch.

"I think we are just at the beginning of this tidal wave of the four-day work week movement," she said.