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How a shorter working week could remedy climate change and improve productivity

30 May 11:00 by Mark Baker

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A new study published this month (May 2019) has found that people across Europe would need to work drastically fewer hours each week to help combat the climate crisis.

The research, from thinktank Autonomy, showed that with the existing carbon intensity across our economy and current levels of productivity, UK workers would be required to eschew a 37.5 hours average working week and adopt a mere nine-hour per week schedule.

This would be in order to meet the Paris Agreement targets on climate change and keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. Similar reductions were also found to be necessary in Sweden and Germany.

The findings were based on OECD and UN data on greenhouse gas emissions per industry in the three countries. It found that, at current carbon levels, all three locations would require a huge reduction in working hours, as well as measures to decarbonise the economy to prevent climate breakdown. 

Autonomy’s report suggests that longer working hours lead quite simply to greater environmental damage, with factors including increased commuting, right down to the purchasing of wasteful goods.

Many employers are likely to perceive a nine-hour working week to be unrealistic but the findings do bolster campaigns such as 4 Day Week, which go some way towards addressing the climate control problem. This initiative insists that a more achievable shorter working week can provide a range of benefits, primarily a reduction in emissions, right down to improved well-being, a better work-life balance and increased productivity.

This is where the case for a shorter working week becomes ever more ardent. In fact, a 2018 study of 250 New Zealand workers showed that those who clocked in for four days, while still being paid for five, trimming their hours from around 40 to 32 per week, were 20 per cent more productive. Employees also revealed a 24 per cent improvement in their work-life balance and a seven per cent decrease in their stress levels.

Meanwhile, a poll last year by YouGov of 4,000 UK adults found that a desire to work more flexibly in future was expressed by 70 per cent of respondents, with 65 per cent adding that it would improve their well-being and satisfaction at work.

Here is a selection of points that expound the benefits of adopting a shorter working week:

Reduced Carbon Footprint

Countries that employ shorter average working hours tend to have a smaller carbon footprint. As a nation, the UK is currently consuming well beyond its share of natural resources. Shorter hours would lead us away from the convenience-led consumption that is damaging to the environment and pave the way for a more sustainable way of living and working.

Increased Productivity

Those who work less hours tend to be more productive hour for hour than those regularly pushing themselves beyond 37.5 hours per week. They are less prone to sickness and absenteeism and comprise a more stable, motivated and committed workforce.

A Fortified Economy

If handled properly, a move towards a shorter working week could improve social and economic equality and ease our dependence on debt-fuelled growth. It could also make us more competitive. The Netherlands and Germany have shorter working weeks than in Great Britain, yet their economies are at least as strong or stronger.

Lower Unemployment Levels

Average working hours may have increased, but they are not spread equally across our economy. Just as some find of us are working all hours of the day and night, others struggle to find employment at all. A shorter working week could help to redistribute paid and unpaid time more evenly across the general population.

Better Well-being

Giving everybody more free time to spend as they choose could reduce stress levels and improve overall well-being, as well as both mental and physical health. Working less hours would distance us from the existing cycle of living to work, working to earn and earning to consume. It would help us all to reflect on and appreciate the things that are truly important in life, such as spending more time with family and friends.

Gender Equality

Across the board, women currently do the same amount of work than men for less money. Moving towards a shorter working week could help change attitudes about gender roles, reduce the gender pay gap and promote more equal shares of paid and unpaid work.

Better Childcare

The high demand for costly childcare stems partly from a culture of long working hours. A shorter working week would help mothers and fathers better balance their time, reducing the costs of full-time childcare. As well as bringing down the cost of childcare, working fewer hours would give parents more time to spend with their children. This increased opportunity to experience more leisure activities would benefit both parents and children alike.

A Smoother Retirement Transition

A shorter and more flexible working week could make the transition from employment to retirement much smoother, spread over a longer period of time. People could reduce their hours gradually over a decade or more. Shifting very suddenly from long hours to zero hours of paid work can be traumatic, bringing on both physical and mental illness.

To conclude, it is clear that massive steps must be taken to help reduce the dramatic effects of climate change. The shorter working week is one solution that would appear to help the environment while also benefiting the financial health of businesses and the overall well-being of employees, enabling them to strike the increasingly desired work-life balance.

Stay tuned to the Claremont Consulting blog for other key insights throughout the job market.