Four day work weeks are changing workplaces around the world from Spain to Ireland. And now, in the United States, companies across sectors are seeing the benefits of this new model. With increased levels of stress, burnout, pandemic grief, and sleep deprivation, 40-hour work weeks are unsustainable for workers and our environment. The 4-day work week (4DWW) gives us the opportunity to increase productivity, efficiency, lower carbon emissions, and raise worker morale. By implementing this practice into our society, we can create a healthier, happier, and more sustainable world.
Unions Gave us the Worker Protections We Have Now
For centuries, workers have unionized and fought for better working conditions, reducing 60 hour work weeks down to 50, and eventually 40 hours, during the 1900’s. This change helped create a balance between work and newfound leisure; but it didn’t change the intensely exploitive working conditions that industrial workers faced. Union organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Service Employees International Union, and more have fought hard to create a national minimum wage, worker protections for assembly line workers and other intense labor jobs, and the formation of the “weekend.”
Unions have also played a major role in the shaping and adoption of environmental protection laws. The Clean Air Act of 1963 was spearheaded by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Their continuous pressure is why we have air quality standards and a reduction in air pollution related deaths. In 1980, the UAW advocated for the right to equal protection against toxic hazards in the workplace, emphasizing the health and social wellbeing of all workers . More recently, the UAW has helped provide water and aid to Flint, Michigan residents. By supporting workers, we are supporting environmental efforts.
Benefits of a 4 Day Work Week
Today, unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are still fighting for better working conditions. The pandemic helped introduce work-from-home options that have benefited many, but has not addressed the intense stress and burnout felt by so many employees. Can a 4 day work week actually raise workers' wellbeing? Andrew Barnes, co-founder of 4 Day Week Global thinks so. In June 2022, the non-profit organization launched its 6-month pilot program to look at the impact of a 4 Day Work Week. With over 70 companies and 3,300 employees involved, it’s the largest pilot program in the UK. The only requirement: maintain the same pay. Companies were free to implement the four day work week however they wanted. Some chose to have people work in person for four days, while others worked five days with shorter hours. Regardless of the system, the results have been striking.
At the end of the pilot program, 40 percent of workers said they were less stressed and resignation levels fell by 57 percent. By giving people more time off, they’re able to focus on hobbies, spending time with family, and other wellness activities that support the overall wellbeing of workers. But what about productivity? Companies and workers who are reluctant to try the 4 Day Work Week for fear of low productivity might be surprised to learn that productivity has mostly stayed the same, and in many cases, has even significantly increased. People who work 32 hours a week get an average of 7.5 hours of sleep, reducing sleep deprivation by over 30 percent. This has allowed workers to have more energy, excitement, and focus on work. In countries like Japan where being overworked is the cultural norm, the implementation of the 4DWW at Microsoft has led to a 40 percent increase in productivity. Some 94 percent of employees reported satisfaction with this new change.
Worker wellbeing is not the only benefit to the 4DWW: with an extra day off, people are not commuting as much. Tyler Grange, an environmental consultant company in the UK, saw a 21 percent reduction in the number of miles traveled by car. According to the Political Economy Research Center, a 10 percent reduction in hours is associated with an 8.6 percent fall in carbon footprint per employee. The company also noticed a huge decrease in carbon emissions related to data storage.
Juliet Schor, a fellow at the Global Center for Climate Justice and economic sociologist at Boston College, is one of the lead researchers for 4 Day Work Week Global. Professor Schor notes, “the one thing we do know from lots of years of data and various papers and so forth is that the countries with short hours of work tend to be the ones with low emissions, and work time reductions tend to be associated with emission reduction.”
With Fridays off, workers spent more time being intentional about communication and collaboration, leading to less online traffic and electricity usage. These environmental and worker benefits are enticing to companies like Tyler Grange that are focused on the intersections between people, the environment, and equality.
Early this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report warning that our world is likely to surpass the 1.5 C temperature increase threshold within the next decade. This statistic is alarming, and climate experts and researchers feel it may take us past certain tipping points in which climate change cannot be stopped. Being saturated with disappointing and anxiety-inducing news every single day leads to despair and impacts our ability to do climate work effectively and efficiently. Climate Advocacy Lab - a non-profit helping the climate community build grassroots power and win through evidence-based advocacy - has introduced the 4 Day Work Week in part to combat these 21st Century work realities.
Former Climate Advocacy Lab Co-founder Sean Kosofsky, who instigated the 4DWW at the Lab, now runs a consulting outfit that helps nonprofits achieve better results. This includes the implementation of a four day work week. Sean notes, “building resilience through investments in mental health, work-life balance, and rest is essential to making progress over the long term.” Without time to rest, we have a greater ability to burn people out and turn them away from this work. Environmental organizations with the 4DWW have noted their workers spend their free time doing volunteer work in communities. Having more time to be intentional, focused, and connected with our communities makes us stronger leaders and advocates, giving people the ability to address climate change at their full capacity.
Sustainability is not only about preserving natural resources. It is also about maintaining mental health and capacity. And we will also enjoy our work more. Because if we are not well rested, how can we have the energy and time to fight against powerful corporations and institutional systems?
From centuries of union organizing to environmental protests, we know that when we listen and support workers we are also supporting a healthier, more sustainable planet. The 4 Day Work Week is gaining momentum for good reason. Will your organization be next?