Most of us grew up in a world where the workweek was five days with two-day weekends in-between. However, new research indicates that not only are there benefits to employee wellbeing, but a four-day workweek could vastly decrease our overall ecological footprint, carbon footprint and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
A very brief history of the modern workweek
For a significant portion of history, unless you were royal and wealthy, people worked every day of the week. While most workers received time off on Sunday mornings to attend church services, vacation days were few and far between or basically nonexistent.
Then, a little over a century ago, in 1908, a New England cotton instituted five-day workweeks. This policy changed allowed Jewish employees the chance to observe the Sabbath, which takes place from Friday evening through Saturday evening in their religion.
Three decades later, the United States passed the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. A mandate from this act went into effect in 1940, limiting the American workweek to 40 hours. Thus began the five-day workweek here in this country. Since then, few have considered switching to a shorter workweek as the whole world adheres to this schedule.
Changes to the length of the average workweek took place due to social pressure. Labor activists protested, petitioned and rallied to afford workers the free time they so rightfully earned week in and week out. Yet it still took decades for scientists, researchers and corporations to acknowledge the environmental impact of the five-day workweek.
Cut down on commuting
One of the most significant impacts a four-day workweek would have on the environment begins with cutting the emissions caused by the commute. A study in the United Kingdom found that a four-day workweek would eliminate 558 million miles of commuting each week. More than 51 percent of the average U.K. worker would eliminate 10-19 miles of driving per week with a four-day workweek.
Utah implements the four-day workweek
For three years, beginning in 2008, Utah implemented a four-day workweek for state employees. These people worked Monday through Thursday, clocking in ten hours each day instead of a five-day workweek with eight hours per day. Amidst criticism from citizens who were unhappy with the Friday closure of state offices, Utah legislators ended the initiative in 2012.
While Utah’s four-day workweek didn’t achieve the program’s goal of cutting energy costs by $3 million annually, the state did save $502,000 each year. In 2009, an interim report projected a decrease in CO2 emissions by 6,000 metric tons annually due to the Friday closure of state buildings. There’s also the other 6,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emission eliminated by fewer commuters on those Fridays.
While legislators and voters disagreed, Utah made considerable efforts to decrease their environmental impact while also increasing employee morale. Imagine how the Beehive State might have succeeded in reducing their ecological footprint, carbon footprint and CO2 emissions with the technology available now! Also, consider how the program might have thrived if local municipalities and businesses had worked together to align their routines with a four-day workweek.
Four-day workweek in practice elsewhere
There’s numerous examples of the positive impact the four-day workweek has on the environment and people outside of the Utah case study.
- New Zealand-based trust management company, Perpetual Guardian, increased employee productivity by 20 percent when it switched to a four-day workweek schedule. Employees also reported a 45 percent improvement in work-life balance.
- In 2019, Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day workweek and experienced a decrease in electricity costs by 23 percent. During the program’s duration, the four-day workweek resulted in a reduction of printed pages by 60 percent.
- A shorter workweek also impacts how people spent their free time outside of work. In 2000, France instituted a 35-hour workweek and when workers weren’t at their jobs, they engaged in more activities that have a lower environmental impact.
A 2015 report asserts that to slow the disastrous consequences of climate, a change to the workweek would lower carbon emissions to more sustainable levels. A 2010 article goes as far as to suggest that a 21-hour workweek addresses issues ranging from overconsumption and high carbon emissions to unemployment and inequality.
The move to a four-day workweek begins with businesses. As more enterprises adopt this policy, creating case studies demonstrating the value of a four-day workweek, government agencies can implement legislation that mandates this change. From there, our environment can begin healing itself as we work to find other measures to reduce our negative impact on the planet we call “home.”