The four day work week

Could collectively altering our work schedule change the world we live in?


Credit: iStockphoto

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The thought of a perpetual cycle of long weekends would be a dream for most, but this became a reality for some workers in the US. In 2009, the state of Utah embarked upon an experiment that revolutionised the working week and, ultimately, the entire community. In an effort to reduce emissions and save the state government money on rising energy costs, an estimated 17,000 state employees worked a mandatory four-day week. Workers maintained their usual weekly work hours, but the hours were spread over four longer work days, instead of five, with no change in salary. Dubbed the 4/10 work week, it’s a basic premise. With one less day of heating, cooling and illuminating office buildings, and one less day of emissions associated with commuting to and from work, the aim was to shift the cycle of the working week to achieve environmental, economic and personal benefits.

Although this trial was heralded as an innovative way to reduce carbon emissions, and an impressive 82 per cent of participants reported they were happier with the new arrangement, the experiment was suspended in 2011. Projected economic savings and the reduction in carbon emissions were not as large as predicted, and some customers were frustrated by services not being available on Fridays, so the Utah senators voted to restore the five-day working week.

But could this retreat have been too hasty? Could a shift as simple as this result in tangible benefits for the environment and the community?

“There are obvious environmental benefits through the reduction in people travelling, and energy use in offices and factories,” says sustainability specialist Leyla Acaroglu, director of Melbourne-based company Eco Innovators and lecturer at Melbourne’s RMIT University. “As long as people aren’t spending their extra day consuming more ‘things’, there are a variety of other benefits that would naturally evolve.

“One positive benefit could be an increase in the consumption of local services, as a service-based economy is believed to be much more environmentally preferable to a product-based economy.

“But the flip side is that there could be a rise in negative impacts stemming from people having more time to spend travelling and consuming more.”

Therein lies the rub – the types of activities people indulge in on their bonus day off are a significant factor
in this situation. Low-impact activities such as sleeping in, walking the dog, riding a bike, practising yoga, gardening, cooking, reading, volunteering and spending time with the family are obviously preferable to activities that involve lots of driving and energy consumption.

While the Utah government deemed the energy savings from their trial less than optimal, other benefits resulting from this shift are worth investigating.

An overwhelmingly positive response from the employees, and anecdotal reports of increased productivity and
job satisfaction, show that an increase in the health and happiness of the community is an equally valuable outcome. Similar positive results have been reported in France since it changed to a 35-hour working week more than a decade ago.

When people have one less day of commuting, and spend more of their time time connecting with family, friends and children, they are generally less stressed. This flies in the face of the chronic busyness of many people’s lives.

So, how would a shift of this magnitude play out in Australian society? Acaroglu is uncertain. “We certainly love our public holidays here in Australia, so it would probably be welcomed,” she says. “But my concern is regarding what people would do with that extra free time. Would they shop or relax? We really enjoy the Sunday trip to the hardware store or shopping centre, and this cultural norm in Australia might be the downfall to getting true environmental benefits from such a shift in our working life. It really comes down to what people choose to do with their free time.”

Research shows that Australians generally work more hours than people in other developed countries, so an exercise in regaining balance and putting people over profits certainly has merit.

The four-day working week clearly has benefits as well as drawbacks, but Acaroglu agrees it could be valuable
for us to look into this idea further.

“These types of alternatives to current cultural behaviours are worth exploring more,” she says. “All sorts of wider, longer-term social benefits would evolve from the shift towards more equality between working and leisure time”.