How the 4-day workweek can help to reduce carbon emissions

Nov 27, 2023

5 mins

How the 4-day workweek can help to reduce carbon emissions
Ula Chrobak

Ula Chrobak is a freelance journalist based in Nevada. You can see more of her work at

When Debbie Bailey launched a 4-day workweek trial at her company, Momentum Mental Health, in 2022, she did it with business metrics front of mind. “I heard that you could reduce work hours and get even greater productivity,” she says. “I thought, well, that sounds pretty incredible.” And the trial delivered on that goal: she saw productivity rise alongside improvements to employee wellbeing. Another surprising benefit emerged during the trial too.

Bailey says the team measured a 27% reduction in energy use, even though the office was open five days a week as employees had different days off. She thinks the decrease had to do with how the new schedule changed the office culture. “Come Friday, you’d be racing out the door. You wouldn’t necessarily turn off your computer. Someone might leave a light on or a fan on,” she says. With the new schedule, “it’s possible that people were just more intentional about their workspaces,” leading to reduced energy usage, she says.

The 4-day, 32-hour week is a hot trend in the world of work. Increasingly, companies and governments are launching pilot projects to test whether a reduced schedule can meet performance metrics while providing employee health benefits and increased job satisfaction. So far, the results of these tests suggest that the reduced schedule can deliver on these seemingly at-odds goals. But another, murkier question remains: Can a shorter workweek provide climate benefits too?

Right now, the evidence is limited, but there are some signs that shorter hours are not only good for people and business – but good for the planet as well.

What research says about shorter hours and the environment

According to some economists, shorter work hours might indeed help combat climate change. In a 2006 report by the think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research, the authors concluded that Americans would consume 20% less energy if they adopted the lower work hours of European countries.

In another analysis of 29 high-income countries using data from 1970 to 2007, reductions in working time were associated with improved environmental outcomes, including a smaller carbon footprint. When holding other variables constant, the authors found that reducing work hours by 10% was linked to a 4.9% smaller ecological footprint and an 8.6% smaller carbon footprint.

Income and carbon footprints

What’s behind these results? In the big picture, work tends to have a carbon cost. “The simplest way to think about it is in terms of production – if we’re spending more time at work, and we’re producing more, then there’s more carbon embedded,” says David Rosnick, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and coauthor of the 2006 report on emissions associated with working hours. “It’s pretty clear that so much of what we emit is tied to what we produce.” Historically, as countries’ GDP have risen, their carbon emissions have tended to grow, too. But through increasing energy efficiency and use of renewable energy, it may be possible to “decouple” GDP growth and carbon dioxide.

On top of that, the more money people make, the more they spend — and there’s a carbon cost to that increased shopping. “The more income you have, the more stuff that you’re buying … the more carbon is tied up in that production,” says Rosnick.

Same productivity, same pay, reduced emissions?

But many proponents of reducing work hours support a model in which employees reduce hours by 20% yet don’t sacrifice their pay. The macroeconomic forces described above wouldn’t necessarily be at play in this scenario. Even so, there might be other ways 32 hours could be greener than 40.

Especially in industry, reducing or compressing the work week can equal energy savings and reduced emissions. When energy prices surged early into the Ukraine invasion, manufacturing companies in Germany and Denmark were able to save on energy by switching to a 4-day workweek, says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, program director for the organization 4 Day Week.

However, most of the 4-day workweek pilots are at companies providing professional services and tech startups. In these computer-based jobs, the energy-saving effects may be smaller. But if employees are going from five days in the office to four, energy use will very likely go down as computers are shut off, lights dimmed, and climate control reduced for an extra day each week. And one less day of driving to work a week can also save on pollution.

Further bolstering shorter week advocates, one study has found that longer working hours, even when controlling for income, contributed to a greater carbon footprint. The study, published in 2019 in Review of Political Economy, also has the advantage of looking at only American households, avoiding the apples-and-oranges comparison between the US and countries that might have better public transportation or stronger environmental regulations.

By doing an analysis including data from more than 5,000 households, the authors found that longer working hours were correlated with larger individual carbon footprints. This relationship was stronger than that of income; growing hours led to a greater bump in emissions compared to income increasing. “In other words, increasing work hours by 1% appears to have a greater impact on household emissions than increasing wages by 1%, even though both changes raise household income by the same amount,” the report says.

This may be because longer hours can lead to more carbon-intensive choices. When people have less time, they’re more likely to drive rather than walk, or to order takeout rather than cook.

But this was a statistical analysis – although they found a strong relationship between work hours and emissions, why this relationship exists is unclear.

Encouragingly, some real-life studies of shortened or compressed workweeks have shown positive environmental outcomes, though these findings sometimes fall short of expectations. In a pilot launched in August 2008, Utah state employees shifted from a standard five-day, 40-hour week to a schedule of four 10-hour days. About 13,000 out of 17,000 employees participated in the trial. Based on data from 125 large state buildings collected during the pilot, the cost of utilities went down 10.5%. But this was much lower than the hoped-for 20% reduction. In reality, some limited operations continued on Fridays, and some facilities needed constant climate control, thus preventing emissions from being cut by one-fifth.

Sustainability depends on what people do with their extra time

Another variable that can make or break the climate impact of an extra day off is what employees choose to do with their free time. Though the findings are limited, data from trials organized by 4 Day Week doesn’t suggest that people are hopping on planes on Fridays or otherwise emitting more carbon than they would have while working. In a six-month trial that included 903 employees mostly in the US and Ireland, the largest categories of activities pursued on the extra day off were hobbies, housework, and personal grooming. Rather than treating their day off as an opportunity to travel, employees seemed more likely to catch up on chores and get a haircut. Additionally, the amount of time spent commuting decreased from an average of 3.56 hours to 2.59 hours per week.

Stefanie Gerold, a sociologist at Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany, has led research asking people what they would do with an extra hour every day. In the open-ended survey, she says people tended to write they would sleep, relax, read, and spend time with their families. “So really sustainable activities,” she says. “It seems like there’s a big need for more relaxing and slowing down.”

Bailey, now the head of growth at 4 Day Week, says that after switching to the shorter week, Momentum Mental Health employees took the extra time to slow down rather than book trips or other carbon-intensive activities. They met friends for coffee, took their kids to doctor’s appointments, and went to the gym. “It actually does seem to be like people took a deep breath,” she says. “We didn’t find that they were jamming holidays into that space.”

While some people might use the extra time to engage in less sustainable activities, so far, the 4-day workweek movement holds promise for at least some modest emissions reductions.

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