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The 4-Day Week: How this Toronto organization made it work

Updated: Apr 3

It’s 2012 and I just secured a contract job for a major film festival here in Toronto. Not only am I thrilled to land what I consider a dream position, I’m also unaware of what I’m about to get myself into. I’m hired months before the festival takes place and it's the norm to work 12-16 hour days to ensure everything is ready in time. It’s not uncommon to go weeks and even months without exercising regularly, eating or drinking properly, seeing family and friends, or finding enough hours to truly rest. Conversations during “festival mode” with colleagues often feel like a bragging contest to see who works longest and who’s burning out quickest. A friend of mine at the same company actually faints on stage during the festival in front of hundreds of concerned patrons, likely because of the stress and not eating or drinking enough water that day.

While stories of fainting on stage are rare, it should come as no surprise that this sort of lifestyle deeply and negatively impacts our physical and mental wellbeing. And the reality is, unhealthy work-life balance is not something that only affects the film festival world, but the non-profit sector as a whole. This badge of “burn-out honour” that we carry with us is not something worth celebrating, in fact, it’s destructive and something we should be running far away from.

Whether you call it “festival mode” or “campaign season” or the standard 40-hour work week, workers across the arts sector are feeling more burnt out than ever. According to the National Arts and Culture Impact survey, commissioned by a group of 30 national and provincial Canadian arts service organizations in 2020, close to 80% of individuals and organizations reported very high or high levels of anxiety. Even more alarming is that this is up from 25% prior to the pandemic.

In 2012, I founded JAYU, a Toronto-based charity committed to sharing human rights stories through the arts. I'm not proud to admit it, but I brought much of what I learned from other non-profits to my own workplace, namely normalizing long work days and burning out my entire team in the name of "well, this is a non-profit; it's how we do things!" At the end of 2019 and after another grueling festival season, I started questioning this mentality and the work structure in general. I started exploring different ways of working and being productive and came across this radical idea of the 4-day work week. I discovered that:

  • Microsoft Japan tried out a 4-day work week and reported that productivity rose by 40%

  • Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand ran a trial where staff worked 4-days a week and got paid for five. Amongst their 250 staff, they found that staff were 20% more productive. Employees there recorded a 24% improvement in their work-life balance, and a 7% decrease in stress levels.

Having just finished our 8th annual Human Rights Film Festival in December 2019, I was more burnt out than ever before. I felt exhausted, irritable, and I could barely perform simple tasks. Anxiety was also a regular and normalized part of my life, and I knew I had to make a change. In January 2020, we tried something new by introducing a 4-day work week pilot at JAYU.

The rules are simple: staff work 6-8 hours a day from Monday to Thursday, and get paid for 40-hours a week. While there are busier times of the year when we may have to work extra hours, we try to make sure that anything beyond 4-days a week is the exception to the rule. Having just completed a year-long pilot with our team, a workplace study we just completed with our employees showed us that:

  • 71% feel more productive working 4-days versus 5 and are taking fewer meetings, or spending less time in meetings

  • 86% feel less distracted and focus more on work

  • 86% find they can complete their weekly tasks within 4-days, compared to 33% of staff finding they are able to complete their weekly tasks in a 5-day work week

When surveyed on their personal wellbeing, we found that:

  • 100% have more time for family, friends, or hobbies, and have a better work/life balance working 4-days a week

  • 86% feel more focused throughout the day and see an improvement in their mental health when working 4-days a week

  • 100% agreed that reducing the work week from 5 to 4-days reduces burnout, makes staff happier, more productive, and more committed to the organization.

While this data provides valuable insight on productivity and mental health, how did the 4-day work week impact our operations when, according to Statistics Canada, 25.4% of arts and recreational workers lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic in 2020? I’m happy to report that we not only kept our entire team employed, but hired additional full-time staff. Our year-round audiences grew to the biggest they’ve ever been, and we also introduced new programming. We saw participation from equity-seeking youth remain steady, and revenue grew to all-time levels. From every angle, not only are the employees at JAYU thriving, but JAYU is as well.

For anyone in a leadership or upper management position reading this, if JAYU, a charity with an annual budget of under a million dollars can offer a 4-day work week, odds are that you can too. The biggest shift is not financial or structural, but mental, specifically around your relationship with how staff is entitled to their income. By shifting to a 4-day work week, not only will you disrupt the destructive ways in which we’re normalized to work, but you’ll also be signalling to your employees and the rest of the sector that you truly value your team’s mental health and work-life balance. By investing in your staff to rest, you’re investing meaningfully in a more energized, productive, and committed workforce, and taking a big leap in helping your organization flourish.

This blog post was written by Gilad Cohen, Artist & EPIC Facilitator.

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