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Would working fewer hours help tackle the climate crisis?

Seedling sprouting from cracked mud
Seedling sprouting from cracked mud

Shortening the working week from five days to four might seem like a pipedream for many people, but this might not be the case in the future.

The basic idea behind a four-day week is that you keep the same pay but work fewer hours, giving you an extra day to do other things - like spend time with family. And according to a new report, nearly three-quarters of UK workers have claimed they could do their job to the same standard over four days as they do in five.

The Meaning of Work report by the job website Indeed, which polled more than 2,000 full-time employees, comes as politicians, trade union leaders and employers increasingly examine the feasibility of a four-day working week - a debate sparked by accelerating automation, a changing attitude to work among younger generations and improvements in mobile technology.


Studies have shown that reducing working hours can have a number of benefits, including increased productivity, improved mental health and wellbeing, higher job satisfaction, lower rates of absenteeism and lower worker turnover. But a shorter working week may have other surprising benefits too - including reducing the environmental impact our economy has on the planet.

Research by the think tank Autonomy suggests people across Europe need to work fewer hours to help curb climate heating, unless we radically decarbonise our economy. And we’re talking more than just a four-day week, too.

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According to the report - based on OECD and UN data on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in the UK, Germany and Sweden - UK employees would need to shift to nine-hour weeks to avoid more than 2C of heating at current carbon intensity levels.

A nine-hour week is a drastic move that is unlikely to be adopted by businesses, but working a shorter week could have significant environmental advantages. According to economists David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot, a reduction in working hours also correlates with a reduction in energy consumption.

A key aspect is that working for four days instead of five would avoid huge amounts of commuting to and from work, cutting back our carbon output and helping to reduce air pollution in our cities. Fewer working days also cuts down on the energy output that comes from running an office, for example, on lighting, heating and powering computers and other equipment.

But it helps make our economy more sustainable in other ways, too. “There are a number of studies revealing a close link between high working hours and energy-intensive, environmentally-damaging patterns of consumption,” researchers at Autonomy wrote.

“High working hours encourage energy intensive consumption and goods, and favour conspicuous expenditure and non-sustainable lifestyles. Examples include the buying of ready-made meals, weekend vacations, and household equipment. All of this consumer behaviour is particularly energy intensive and therefore ecologically damaging.”

Simply having more time outside of work can also help shift our behaviour away from carbon-intensive consumption. Effectively, we would have more time for “low carbon soft activities” such as “exercising, socialising, and investing in personal education.”

“With limited free time, there is an increased tendency to spend that time intensively on more consumer goods,” the report highlights. “Having less time outside of waged-work means people are not able to use their leisure time for time-intensive, but low-energy activities such as regular exercise, and cooking with raw ingredients.”

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Even the way we eat when we are busy working long hours can impact the environment. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Manchester conducted a study into the environmental impact of convenience food - and as it turns out, supermarket sandwiches aren’t so convenient for our planet.

Professor Adisa Azapagic, one of the study authors, said: “Consuming 11.5 billion sandwiches annually in the UK generates, on average, 9.5 million tonnes of CO2 eq., equivalent to the annual use of 8.6 million cars.”

Working a shorter week isn’t the only answer to the climate crisis, but it is one strategy that just might make a difference. “In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less,” said Emma Williams, of the Four Day Week campaign.