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4-day working week may benefit the climate

Reducing working hours to a four-day week could have a potentially significant impact on the environment and, more broadly, on society, say lawyers.  

user iconJess Feyder 08 September 2022 Big Law
4-day working week may benefit the climate
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Studies have documented a link between fewer working hours and lower emissions, with experts explaining this may be the result of changes to commuting, energy use and lifestyle habits. 

Lessening the working week may have other positive consequences; it’s a potential “triple-dividend policy” — benefiting the economy, society, and environment, 4 Day Week Global chief executive Joe O’Connor recently told the Washington Post

“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,” said Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College.


Experts emphasised that climate benefits would depend on several factors, including how people choose to spend non-working time. 

To uncover the potential impacts of lessening working hours, Lawyers Weekly spoke with Brooke Dellavedova, interim general counsel at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, and Fionn Bowd, chief executive and chief nurturer of clients at BOWD.

Ms Dellavedova has worked four days a week for the past 20 years and said it has profoundly shaped her attitude towards the environment and consumption. 

For her, working less not only meant less work-related travel but it has also given her more time to spend with family, exercising, reading, and engaging with her local community — activities she finds more satisfying than going on an overseas trip or buying a new car.

“When I am time poor, I feel forced to choose less environmentally friendly options,” said Ms Bowd. 

“More takeaway, more pre-packaged food, more use of cars instead of public transport — quick is prioritised over environmental efficiency.” 

Reflecting on the potential impacts for the environment and society, Ms Bowd noted: “When working hours were regulated and capped at eight hours at the end of the industrial revolution, many very important charities and societies became founded as people had time to think about people other than themselves.

“Over the last 50 years we have lost that hard-won right of eight-hours labour, eight-hours rest and eight-hours recreation, and that’s been particularly stark as the ‘professions’ have tended not to unionise. 

“All we have done is work longer and more. This is not only unsustainable for the long term, it’s damaging for us as a society. 

“We cannot be creative and solve problems when we are living in a state of anxiety and overwork for our entire work lives.

“I’m a firm believer that if we draw much firmer boundaries as a society about what work is (and isn’t), we will actually come up with all kinds of novel ways of working which will drive genuine productivity, as well as social improvements as people having more time will also lead to more volunteer, community and political work.”

Ms Dellavedova and Ms Bowd reflected on the potential risks of moving to a four-day working week.

“There are obvious questions about what the economic impacts might be if everyone just works 20 per cent less,” said Ms Bowd, “but my belief is that we have had very few genuine increases in productivity since we moved to a primarily ‘white collar’ workforce”.

“I don’t see any negative implications that can’t be addressed through planning,” said Ms Dellavedova.

“It’s largely a matter of adjustment. Just as we don’t (generally) expect people to work seven days, or 18-hour days; we can adjust our views as to what is a reasonable proportion of our lives to be at paid work. 

“As to whether a four-day week would impact on growth, this depends in part on whether a four-day model is actually less profitable, but also deeper issues around whether perpetual growth is ecologically sustainable.”

Ms Bowd noted for a four-day working week to have a proper impact, a degree of intentionality about reducing power consumption is necessary. 

“Offices or floors would need to have power shut down,” she said, “and there would need to be a desire about reducing power in terms of transport use.” 

There’s the risk that employees would be expected to generate the same amount of work but for less pay, Ms Dellavedova noted, so careful workload and workforce planning would be needed. 

“It is important to note that not everyone can afford to work less than full time,” she added. 

Ms Dellavedova and Ms Bowd reflected on the potential outcomes a four-day working week would have on individuals, and specifically on lawyers.

“In general, I think many people would like to have more control about how they spend their time,” said Ms Bowd. 

“Some people would like to garden, some would like to cook, some would like to do household projects, some would like to write a novel. 

“I think it’s very likely that people, and lawyers in particular, would over time start to move towards more social and probably political activity due to having more spare time. This would greatly benefit society.  

“Working less means you are more deliberate about how to apply your time, and what to engage with and what to let go.” 

Ms Dellavedova reflected that for lawyers, it’s easy to get caught up in the urgency of everything, and it can become difficult to find a balance. 

“I believe that working less means you can spend more time on other important parts of life, and ultimately be healthier and more content, and probably more effective,” she mused.

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