Good News: 4-day workweek provides business, worker and climate benefits

Numerous studies over the years have documented a link between fewer working hours and lower emissions and worker satisfaction. Credit: iStock/Washington Post

By Derek Ren, Alliance Intern from the University of California, Los Angeles

A recent UK study found most participating companies are sticking with a 4-day workweek after finding increased productivity, lower staff burnout, and significant financial savings for employees, according to LinkedIn. After experimenting with a 4-day workweek for 6 months, none of their employees wanted to switch back to the traditional 5-day workweek, and 15% said they wouldn’t go back for any amount of money. Additionally, employees who worked 34 hours across four days reported lower stress and better general health

Companies also found significant climate benefits. Experts say that a shorter workweek could reduce global emissions by decreasing commuting time. A 2012 study by 4 Day Week Global found a 10% reduction in commuting hours is associated with a 8.6% fall in the carbon footprint. The UK study found people who had an extra day off engaged in low-carbon activities, such as hiking or stay-at-home hobbies. The trial also led to an increase in pro-environmental behaviors, such as volunteering for environmental causes and buying eco-friendly products.

We feel that the BBC article does such a great job of addressing some of the facts and possible challenges that we’re simply including it here:

Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College and lead researcher at 4 Day Week Global who worked on the UK and US pilot studies, argues that a shorter working week is key to achieving the carbon emissions reductions the world needs.

“Although climate benefits are the most challenging thing to measure, we have a lot of research showing that over time, as countries reduce hours of work, their carbon emissions fall,” she says.

One of the most important contributors to the climate benefits of four-day workweek is a fall in commuting. Data from the UK trial shared with Future Planet shows a 10% decrease over the pilot period, from 3.5 hours to 3.15 hours per week, for the companies which tracked commuting time. While this is a significant fall, savings could reach 15-20%, Schor says. In the 2022 US trial the decline was even bigger, from 3.56 to 2.59 hours a week (a 27% decrease).

Both the UK and US trials also found that many people spent the time saved from not commuting or working engaged in low-carbon activities, such as hiking or stay-at-home hobbies. The UK data also showed that the shift to a shorter workweek led to an increase in pro-environmental behaviors: participants in the trial spent more time volunteering for environmental causes, and were more careful with recycling and buying eco-friendly products.

An unforeseen effect caught the eye of Tyler Grange during the UK trial: carbon emissions related to the sending and storage of data significantly dropped. Big data-storing centres can each consume the same amount of electricity as 50,000 homes, so that was another significant win. “The lack of [online] business traffic on Fridays could have a substantial impact on emissions, possibly even more important than the drop in commuting,” Ursell says. While the company didn’t track exact use of data, he suspects the drop came from the team “avoiding unnecessary internal comms.”

Neither the UK nor US trials measured the full carbon impact of any additional activities people may have done due to their extra day off. But while Philipp Frey, a researcher at the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis in Karlsruhe, Germany, and author of The Ecological Limits of Work, says he understands the concern of potential additional leisure emissions, he notes that it doesn’t seem to be validated for now.

He notes that one study showed people in North America and Europe have a lower carbon footprint on weekend days (weekend emissions did not decrease in East Asia). Overall, Sunday emissions in North America and Europe were found to be 40% lower than the average, while weekday emissions were nearly 20% higher than the average.

Data from the US Energy Information Administration also shows people in the US burn nearly 10% less fossil fuels on weekends than they do on weekdays. So he believes shifting Friday from a weekday to a weekend day could represent a significant improvement in fossil fuel emissions. “These numbers show that the four-day week can really have a substantial impact,” Leland says.

Some data from the trials appear to be relatively reassuring, too. The number of domestic leisure trips taken by workers involved in the UK pilot decreased by 5.5% in four weeks, while there was almost no change in the number of international flights taken for leisure. Meanwhile, the US study found no change in domestic leisure travel, but international leisure travel more than doubled, albeit from a low base.

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