Rural municipalities in Canada lead the way in 4-day work weeks to combat high turnover rates

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A growing number of rural municipalities in Canada are adopting four-day work weeks in an attempt to attract and retain more talent.

Last week, the Township of Algonquin Highlands, Ont. announced that it would be permanently moving to a “compressed” work week. Instead of working five days per week and eight hours per day, municipal employees will work 10-hour days four days a week.

Algonquin Highlands is the latest in the growing list of rural municipalities that have chosen to implement a compressed four-day work week. Other Ontario municipalities that have already done the same include Aylmer, Zorra, Springwater and French River. Four-day work week trials have also taken place in Merritt, B.C., Saint John, N.B. and the District of Guysborough in Nova Scotia.

David Arbuckle of the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario says these measures are a response to the high staff turnover at municipalities, noting that compressed work weeks aren’t new to the sector either.

“They’re looking for ways to remain competitive within the sector because municipalities are competing for talent with the private sector with other public sector jobs, so they have to look for ways innovative ways to create an environment where it’s attractive for people to come in and work in their municipality,” Arbuckle said.

Jobs in the municipal sector can be highly stressful environments, Arbuckle says, as they involve answering to both residents and elected officials. Arbuckle also notes the sector has seen high levels of turnover retirement, even before COVID-19.

Four-day work week trials in the U.S. and Ireland have found that employees reported lower levels of stress, fatigue and burnout, along with improvements in mental health. At the same time, revenues for the participating companies went up.

When Zorra Township, Ont. implemented its four-day work week, the fact that employees were working longer hours per day meant that the township office could be opened longer each day to the public.

“We saw in Zorra that they were actually able to work the four-day work week, have longer hours during those days, but actually increased their service standard to their to the public. So ultimately, again, that’s why other municipalities may be looking at it,” Arbuckle said.

But while rural municipalities have led the way in introducing four-day work weeks, the idea has yet to catch on in larger cities. Arbuckle says it’s “a little bit easier to manoeuvre” work schedules at smaller municipalities, some of which have five or fewer employees.

“Larger municipalities, you have a lot more co-ordination that you have to do with different departments. You also usually have a higher union presence and those union contracts may provide a barrier to some changes that you want to make in the overall environment — not impossible, but certainly requires a little bit more negotiation,” he said.

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