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Could a 4-day workweek help the climate?

Natalie Muller | Neil King
June 9, 2023

Several trials have found that a shorter workweek can boost worker productivity and reduce burnout. Advocates argue it could also have benefits for the environment.

A man in a suit holding a briefcase looking at a lake
Studies show workers are less likely to fall sick and suffer from stress when they have more free timeImage: Sergey Nivens/Shotshop/picture alliance

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.

In 1926, Henry Ford became one of the first employers to implement a five-day, 40-hour workweek in his car factories. He believed his workers would be just 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 United Kingdom, United States 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, said 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.

Office work: Past, present and future

But the four-day workweek 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, 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. 

UK launches 4-day work week pilot program

Schor said 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 European Union, 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," said 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 said there was also a shift toward 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 said. "We process orders all day long, and those things need to be done or else they get a backlog pretty quickly." 

Metalworkers inspect a press at a Porsche factory in Schwarzenberg, Germany
German metalworkers' union IG Metall has said a four-day workweek could improve workers' lives and attract younger peopleImage: Jan Woitas/dpa/picture alliance

During the pilot phase, the company gave workers one day off every fortnight. But, Roderick said, 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 said, adding that they've also 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 said.  

More studies planned 

Schor said 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 well-being. 

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 COVID 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 said 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