Sunday, December 10, 2023

A 4-Day Workweek Is Better for Your Health. What About the Planet?


Are you still working five days a week? Growing research points to the benefits of a four-day workweek for your health — and there may be benefits to the planet, too.

The discussion surrounding a four-day workweek is growing more nuanced as interest spreads across industries. It’s no longer just a lofty covid-induced work-from-home concept. Proponents often cite potential environmental and health benefits, but how well-founded are these claims?

“Obviously, the four-day workweek isn’t about Thirsty Thursday. It’s not even about kicking off the weekend one day earlier. Not even close. It’s about putting a laser-sharp focus on operational excellence. In other words: shedding light on a company’s inefficiencies and doing something about them,” Amanda Zantal-Wiener, Editor-in-Chief of Search Engine Journal wrote in a post this past summer.

She says the media site didn’t reduce workload or pay; instead, it adopted the “100/80/100 rule”: 100 percent productivity with 80 percent of the time, all while maintaining 100 percent pay.

Is your home office as sustainable as it could be?
Photo Courtesy Klara Kulikova

The four-day workweek has been tested with overwhelming success in countries including Ireland, Spain, and the U.K. In most cases, the switch results in improved productivity, a boost in morale, and a more positive team culture.

“It didn’t take long for our staff-led committee to discover ways for all of us — leadership included — to find ways to be more productive, and better define and honor boundaries while doing it,” writes Zantal-Wiener. “We had tools at our fingertips, like async meetings, Slack statuses, video messaging, and the ability to schedule messages and emails in advance. We just had to figure out the best way to use them.”

She says the company experimented and worked toward the goal by doing things like canceling meetings, adopting tools like AI, and allowing employees to anonymously critique the changes. It wasn’t without its challenges, but she says to any company considering the move, “do it.” But, she says, expect the unexpected. “And know that no company can fix every inefficiency. The world simply moves too fast, Zantal-Wiener says, but every company can afford at least a bit of this introspection, which can bring priorities to the surface, and, critically, the work-life balance.

For secondhand platform ThredUp, switching to a four-day workweek saw 93 percent of its employees report improved productivity. It also decreased turnover by more than half compared to a five-day workweek. It also attracted new hires, who said the four-day workweek made them want the job even more, the company recently told Business Insider.

woman in park
Time in nature can help ease anxiety. Photo courtesy Elia Pellegrini

One recent study found more than 90 percent of companies who participated in a four-day workweek trial said they planned to continue it. More than 70 percent of employees said they felt reduced burnout with a four-day workweek, while nearly 40 percent said they felt their physical health improved and more than 40 percent said their mental health improved.

There are caveats, though. Pushing those hours into fewer but longer days can have the opposite effect, increasing physical and mental stress. The model Search Engine Journal employed saw no additional hours, just increased productivity, and with it, increased employee performance and happiness.

But are there any benefits to the planet in reducing our workweek, too?

The environmental impact of the four-day workweek

One of the most often-cited potential benefits of a four-day workweek is the reduction in carbon emissions due to fewer commuting days. And that would make sense, except that it’s flawed. If you had an extra day off every week would you stay home? In all likelihood, you’d spend at least some of those days somewhere else. And if you’re not an EV driver, that means emissions that could be greater than your daily commute if you’re heading out to the beach or a mountain hike. Maybe you’re taking your three-day weekends to go and visit family in another town.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2019 originated from the transportation sector. A wholesale shift to a four-day workweek could reduce emissions by 20 percent, but there’s just too much grey area to know for sure. People commute via public transport. Some walk or bike. Some already work at home.

Photo courtesy Roberto Nickson

Would the energy used during an extra day off negate the benefits derived from one less day of commuting? According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Americans spent $6 billion more on at-home power consumption during the first few months of the pandemic than during normal times — which was enough power to nearly offset a decline in business and industrial demand.

Further complicating the issue is that commercial buildings can be more energy efficient than some homes, particularly older homes. But they still use a lot of energy; buildings in the U.S. account for about 70 percent of all electricity use and about 40 percent of the total U.S. primary energy consumption, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

But increasingly, many modern buildings employ smart systems that adjust energy usage according to occupancy levels. Moreover, some skeptics point out that those longer four-day workweeks erase any energy savings as the energy use is just shifted. And an inefficient effort could see employees in the office for additional hours or even on those supposed-to-be-off days.

woman gardening
Photo courtesy Greta Hoffman

Benefits do really come down to how employees are spending those off days. If they’re investing that time in hobbies, home improvements, or spending more time in nature — these are activities that boost mental health and can have a low impact on the environment. Can they also increase their interest in protecting the planet and their own health more than before? With an extra day for yoga classes, farmers markets, or spending time in your garden, there’s more of that Blue Zone effect Dan Buettner is so fond of. It’s, as he says in the Netflix series, not about trying not to die, but about learning how to living more.

“When you give people more room to be themselves, you also give them room to do their best work,” says Zantal-Wiener. And that doesn’t just apply to the work they’re doing from 9 to 5. “It’s been wonderful and fascinating to see how people use this redefined sense of time,” she says, “and, more so, how each is individually making it work for them.”

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