Could a 4-day workweek help the climate?
Several trials have found that a shorter workweek can boost worker productivity and reduce burnout. Advocates say it could also have benefits for environment.
Working five days a week is standard practice in the Western world, but things weren't always that way. During the Industrial Revolution, workers often toiled away in factories for over 70 hours a week, until the rise of labor unions and concerns about exploitation led to demands for a cap on hours. (Also read: Is a four-day week for India’s greater good?)
In 1926, Henry Ford became one of the first employers to implement a five-day, 40-hour work week in his car factories. He believed his workers would be as productive in a shorter amount of time if they had two days off. His experiment was a success: productivity went up, other companies followed suit — and the five-day week stuck.
But 100 years on, a campaign to shorten the week further — to four days — is gaining momentum.
In recent years, four-day week pilots have been carried out around the world, in Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, the UK, US and Iceland.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive, with improved health and well-being reported among employees, as well as productivity gains. Several studies have also suggested there may be benefits for the planet.
Working less for the climate?
Juliet Schor, an economist and sociology professor at Boston College in the US, says there are clear links between climate footprint and working hours — at least in high-income nations.
"What we find is that countries with long working hours have high carbon emissions, and countries with short working hours have lower carbon emissions," Schor said.
A paper she co-authored in 2012 looked at OECD countries between 1970-2007 and concluded that a 10% drop in working hours could reduce the carbon footprint by 14.6%.
A separate study from 2021 by British environmental group Platform predicted that by moving to a four-day workweek by 2025, the UK could shrink its emissions by 20%, or around 127 million tons. That's more than the entire carbon footprint of Belgium.
Where would these savings come from? According to the study, cutting one workday could reduce energy consumption in workplaces, lower emissions from commutes and also encourage sustainable lifestyle changes.
But the four-day work week aside, simply working from home more — as many people became accustomed to doing during the pandemic — could also result in similar emissions savings from commutes.
Putting the four-day workweek to the test
Schor led research into two recent pilots of the four-day workweek in the UK, the US and Ireland. Some 91 companies from different sectors and 3,500 employees took part in the six-month trials, overseen by the London nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, Autonomy think tank, the University of Cambridge and Boston College.
Employees received the same pay and were asked to maintain the same productivity in reduced working time. In a nutshell, the results showed workers were mostly as, if not more, productive, less likely to take sick days, and healthier and happier. After the trial ended, more than 90% of the companies opted to keep the scheme in place, while 4% decided against it.
Schor says it's difficult to calculate total emissions impacts from the four-day week pilots. It's an area researchers hope to study more closely in future trials.
They did, however, find that commuting time fell across the board by around half an hour per week, reducing the emissions from those trips.
Transport is responsible for the biggest share of greenhouse emissions in the US, UK and the EU, accounting for more than a quarter.
"Especially in the US, we saw a reduction in commuting," said Schor. Not only were people commuting less, but when they did travel to work, they were less likely to take the car.
But… how are people using their time off?
Even if workers commute less and workplaces save energy, any benefit for the climate will ultimately depend on what people do on their day off. If employees decide to take a road trip, or a flight, that could drive emissions up instead.
"We did ask people how they're spending that off-day and it doesn't seem to be in carbon-intensive ways," says Schor. "Are they just flying off somewhere, especially in countries like Ireland and the UK where there are all those cheap European flights? It looks like that is not happening."
Rather, research so far has shown most people stay close to home and spend time on hobbies, housework and self-care. Schor says there was also a shift towards more sustainable lifestyles.
But… how realistic is a four-day week anyway?
The recent pilots covered a range of businesses, from manufacturing plants to design firms, health care services and nonprofits. While many opted to give staff Fridays off, others had staggered models to ensure all days were staffed. But cutting down on working hours didn't suit everyone.
Mark Roderick and the 40 employees at his engineering and industrial supplies company Allcap took part in the UK trial last year. But the nature of the business meant resources were stretched too thin.
"Often people come to us because we have in stock what they need that day. We're like a shop. We can't just say, 'We're closed on Friday,'" he says. "We process orders all day long, and those things need to be done or else they get a backlog pretty quickly."
During the pilot phase, the company gave workers one day off every fortnight. But, Roderick says, staff were often more stressed, because they had to also take on the work of colleagues having their day off.
As a result, they stopped the scheme at their three main trade sites, but rolled out the four-day week at their engineering center, where the staff make products to different deadlines.
"What it means there is that the guys (there) are better rested, they're not stressed, and they have fewer mistakes," he says, adding that they've been able to save energy.
"It's quite an energy-demanding business unit. So it was easier for me to say: 'Nobody comes in on a Friday, and we don't switch anything on,'" he says.
More studies planned
Schor says there still needs to be more research into how shorter working hours impact emissions and energy use. Thus far the focus has been mainly on productivity and worker wellbeing.
More pilots are planned for South Africa, Europe, Brazil and North America in the coming months.
There's no doubt work patterns are shifting. The coronavirus pandemic prompted a rethink of how we work, showing what flexible arrangements could look like. And in many fields the advent of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, are also creating new possibilities.
Schor says she is convinced the four-day week — in one form or another — is the future.
For more on the four-day workweek, listen to this episode of the On the Green Fence podcast.
Edited by: Sarah Steffen