In the name of mental health: shorter weeks and remote working options create a caring culture for employees

What does it mean to have a “culture of caring”?

If you’re the David Suzuki Foundation, that means providing flexible working arrangements that help employees achieve work-life balance and good mental health.

Four-day work week a boon to productivity, recruitment

The David Suzuki Foundation began offering a four-day work week to employees more than 20 years ago: well before flexible working arrangements became a consideration to most organizations.

While the DSF offices are open Monday through Friday, all staff only work four days—with the majority choosing Monday through Thursday. However, staff can change their schedules if necessary. For example, if an aging parent has an appointment on Wednesday, they can make up that day by working on Friday.

“We have lots of employees who have to look after elderly parents, children or sick partners, and that flexibility gives them time to support those people,” says Catherine Gordon, HR Director of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Allowing one day off each week is wonderful for employees — providing them more time to spend with friends and family, achieve a work-life balance and improve their quality of living. (Moreover, adds Catherine, one less day employees spend in traffic helps to conserve the environment and provides an opportunity to spend more time in nature, aligning with the environmental charity’s mission.)

The organization also has a winter closure policy, during which employees can take paid time off in December. “Basically, if you work in British Columbia, maintain a four-day work week and bank all your stat holidays, you get 2.5 weeks off at Christmas — paid — on top of your usual vacation time,” explains Catherine.

Catherine acknowledges that some employers considering a shorter work week may worry about employees getting things done, the reality at DSF is quite the opposite.

“I find employees here are more productive. There’s quite a meeting culture here so people are trying to get work done in-between meetings, and they realize the need to be productive as possible as they have to complete 5-6 days of work within a four-day week. Basically, they’re more productive in those four days because they have to be.”

A four-day work week is “absolutely a recruitment benefit, although I think most people don’t know we offer it until they’re going through the interview process—and then they get even more excited about working here,” says Catherine. “They love that they can change their schedule if their kids have an event or they have an appointment.”

It’s also great for retention.

“Our salaries are actually comparable to corporate, but as a small organization, it’s not always possible to offer new opportunities to our employees for career development. So offering a shorter work week definitely helps keep them here instead of moving on.”

Remote working policy helps support families

In addition to a shorter work week, DSF also offers employees the opportunity to work one day each week from home; or to come into the office one day a week; or to work entirely remotely if they live further from one of its offices.

“It’s dependent on the role of course, but we are able to allow some people to work entirely remotely,” says Catherine. “Then, they come into the office once a month or quarter for a week, or for particular meetings.”

There are several reasons why DSF has chosen to provide this flex working option.

“Sometimes, employees just prefer to work remotely on an ad-hoc basis, when they have a project or report or task that requires a lot of concentration,” says Catherine.

“As well, employees have personal circumstances that make it difficult for them to come into the office and look after their family, so we’re supportive of that. We also work closely with Indigenous peoples, and we appreciate they want to work and live within their own community.”

Technology helps keep employees connected, regardless of location. The David Suzuki Foundation has a telepresence system across all its regional offices, “which is like speaking to someone in the same room even though they are in a different office,” says Catherine. “We also use Skype, the phone, and SharePoint works really well for sharing documents and editing them together.”

Trust is not an issue with employees who work off-site, adds Catherine.

“The workload is quite substantial here, so it would be very clear if someone wasn’t producing,” she explains. “We have clear expectations about core office hours, expect people to attend meetings with partners and come into the office as required, and everyone respects that.”

Supporting mental health a priority

Ultimately, providing flexible work arrangements helps support mental health: a cause that DSF is very passionate about.

The organization was one of the first to pilot the Mindful Employer program: a training program to help reduce the stigma of mental health and support colleagues. (DSF is currently one of 27 organizations nationally who is providing employee feedback to continue to improve the program.)

“A caring culture is really important to us, so we’re committed to providing resources and support to ensure our employees are comfortable coming forward to ask for help,” says Catherine.

“The Mindful Employer program is just one way we do that. And then, we help employees stay in their jobs through flexible work arrangements, allowing them to change their schedule so they can maintain good mental health and keep a work-life balance.”

Flexible work environment a “win/win”

According to Catherine, providing this kind of employee support is especially important for organizations (such as not-for-profit) who are consistently challenged with limited personnel and financial resources.

“It can feel overwhelming as an organization to keep employees present, productive and engaged at work. But the solutions we’ve employed have helped the David Suzuki Foundation find a way that works for both the organization and our staff. Employees can maintain a high performance and still fulfill their personal commitments, which is a win/win for everyone concerned.”

This nonprofit HR innovation story series is made possible thanks to a partnership between Community Foundations of Canada, HRcouncil.ca and family foundation Ignite NPS. Together we are supporting Canada’s nonprofit sector by highlighting stories of HR innovation and promising practices taking place in community organizations across the country.

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