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How would a four-day week affect the environment?

How would a four-day week affect the environment?
05 Dec
The four-day week is often held as being of benefit to human well-being, but what would working fewer hours really mean for the environment?

The benefits of a four-day working week, we have been told, are numerous. Increased productivity, improved employee mental health and fewer sick days will apparently follow. Several companies are already trialling it, while the UK’s Labour Party has announced that it will cut the average working week to 32 hours within ten years if it gets into power – with no loss of pay. But among all of this research, the resultant impact on the environment has received less attention.

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Now, with the climate crisis firmly in the headlines, this question is gaining more clout as a research theme. An obvious starting point is the potential impact of a four-day week on car use. In a recent study, nattily titled Four Better or Four Worse?, researchers at the Henley Business School considered this question via a survey, presented to 505 business leaders and a separate sample of 2,063 adults, designed to reflect the UK in terms of age, gender and religion.

By applying the respondent’s answers on commuting habits to Department for Transport traffic data, the researchers found that if scaled up to apply to the UK as a whole, a national four-day working week would reduce the number of miles driven each week by employees travelling to work by 558 million. This in turn would reduce fuel consumption and travel costs, with car mileage down by as much as nine per cent.

These findings correlate with other positive research on the issue. A 2012 study based on data from 29 OECD member nations from 1970 to 2007, found that a ten per cent reduction in work hours could lead to declines in ecological footprint, carbon footprint and CO2 emissions by 12.1 per cent, 14.6 per cent and 4.2 per cent respectively.

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Nevertheless, there is another side to the story. While it is reasonably simple to analyse the way employees might alter their commutes in a four-day scenario, predicting what people will do with their extra time is much harder. There are plenty of energy savings to be made by having fewer people at work (think reduced use of workplace computers or machinery), but if an employee’s new pursuits involve high energy consumption, many of these environmental benefits could be undone. An increase in short-haul flights or other car journeys for example, would be bad news.

‘Measuring net impact – including non-transport related benefits – is fraught with several estimation challenges,’ acknowledges Anupam Nanda, a professor at Henley Business School and one of the contributors to the recent study. ‘Anything related to human behaviour and collective net benefits is very difficult to predict.’

As a result, he says that this risk needs to be explicitly considered in any new policies, both to reduce the risk of a detrimental environmental effect and to stop the situation in which employees simply cram more work into fewer hours, with resulting implications on stress levels and healthcare costs. ‘Organisations and policy-makers need to devise strategies to minimise the possibility of adverse effects and maximise the benefits,’ says Nanda. ‘Further studies using behavioural economic models and primary data can provide more insights in designing those policies and strategies.’

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