When thinking about climate change, have you ever wondered whether your work hours could play a part in it? For most people, the answer is “no.” The connection between work hours and climate change isn’t immediately apparent, and though working fewer hours sounds appealing, how can it possibly have any effect on climate-health? 

Most of us want to do our bit for the environment. Perhaps we are avid recyclers, vegan, zero-waste supporters, or cycle whenever possible instead of driving everywhere. Still, we might not have considered a painless (and dare we say, enjoyable) way to positively impact the environment: reducing work hours.

Let’s explore this further.

The research

In the U.S, people are encouraged to work as hard as possible, and in an ever-growing, material-focused society, the desire or perceived need to work more has increased, too. It’s been said that workers in the U.S work more hours than in any other developed country in the world.

But research done by The Centre of Economic Policy and Research has shown the “potentially large costs to the environment” by working longer hours, due to the amount of energy consumed. This is in terms of production, manufacturing, as well as commuter emissions. The paper states that if the rest of the world worked as many hours as Americans do, it would consume 15-30% more energy than they do at present, and by 2050 the “additional carbon emissions could result in 1 to 2 degrees Celsius in extra global warming.”

Furthermore, it is predicted that as little as a one percent decrease in working hours could lead to a 1.46 percent decrease in carbon footprint and 0.42 percent decrease for CO2 emissions. That may not seem like a lot, but small changes add up…

There’s more to life than work

But what about how we spend this free time? It’s all very well reducing work hours, but if this then results in people flying abroad, or driving more, then it’s not much help in the long run. However, working longer hours often results in us making poor choices for the environment because we’re pushed for time or energy.

These poor choices could include using a tumble dryer on a sunny day, instead of a clothes-line, because there’s not enough time to hang the clothes out before work. Or we choose to drive instead of using public transport, walking, or cycling to work. Or it could be the food choices we make that are more convenient for our time-schedule but have bad implications for the environment.

But what about productivity?

If people work fewer hours, surely that means that productivity will go down dramatically, and things just won’t get done? That is perhaps the automatic assumption, but is this realistic? Let’s take a look at why fewer working hours could actually benefit productivity.

More time doesn’t equal efficiency

According to Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Ultimately, if we have more time to do something, we have more time to procrastinate or even fill it up stressing and feeling anxious about having to do the thing, instead of just doing the thing. By reducing work time, we can focus much more and get on with it.

More hours = more mistakes

If we work to the point of exhaustion — which is often the case if you have long hours — then you will make more mistakes. Our brains don’t like to be exhausted, and they don’t like stress either. The combination of the two leads to more errors, misjudgments, or missed opportunities. By reducing work hours, employers are likely to be less exhausted, less stressed, and more able to concentrate on their tasks. This, in turn, reduces energy waste because if you do it right the first time, there’s no having to use energy to do it again.

Fewer sick days

A two-year study in Sweden showed that a six-hour workday resulted in a reduction of sick leave by 10%. The study was done on workers at a care home for the elderly, and it is noted that both employees and residents felt the benefits of the shorter working days. Residents of the care home commented on how they received better care and had more time spent on them by the nurses. Employees felt the benefits of a shorter working day, commenting that they felt less stressed and more alert. A shorter working day also means there is less “dread” felt about the long day ahead. This increases positivity and therefore, productivity.

Happier employees

Fewer hours results in happier employees because by working less, people have more time to focus on the pleasures and leisure of life. Finding more time in their life for themselves and their family, will result in a better work-life balance, and therefore result in a feeling of contentment. When employees are overworked, they have little time for relaxation and for the things and people they love and enjoy. This not only creates health problems but also results in resentment of their work. If people resent, their work, productivity will go down. If employees feel valued, more relaxed, and content with their job, they will work better and therefore be more productive.

So, reducing work hours doesn’t mean a loss of productivity, in fact, it seems like the most sensible thing to do: better for the company or business, better for the employees, and, as we’ve discovered, better for the environment. Sounds pretty good to me.