Let’s work less and save the planet – The Irish Times

This is the critical decade for climate action. Meeting our overdue emissions reduction targets will require energy transitions and technological advances but also sociocultural and lifestyle changes, social organizing, and increased public engagement with environmental issues. A key challenge for our society will be finding ways to meet these environmental targets while protecting and promoting wellbeing. The international 4-day week movement — which centers around the 100-80-100 model: 100 per cent of the pay for 80 per cent of the time in exchange for 100 per cent productivity — offers an opportunity to do just that.

First, evidence suggests that working less improves our wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, there are direct health benefits associated with working less. Namely, those with shorter working hours have more time to sleep, eat better and exercise, thereby improving health outcomes. Those who work fewer hours also report increased subjective wellbeing, such as life satisfaction. One potential explanation for gains in wellbeing is that those who work less have more “time affluence”, which is associated with better social relations, increased time spent on physical and leisure activities and, ultimately, increased happiness. For example, recent evidence from the city of Gothenburg’s “right to part-time” policy found that working less improved quality of life through gains in time affluence, energy, health and time spent on strengthening social ties for both higher- and lower-income groups.

Work-time reduction may also be particularly good for working women. Because of caring responsibilities, women tend to favor more flexible work arrangements. However, in many cases, part-time work has been found to limit women’s career prospects and reinforce inequalities within the home. A universal work time reduction policy may offset these disadvantages because the program applies to all employees regardless of gender or parental status, thereby increasing the “unpaid” labor force and decreasing the stigma associated with flexible work. This is particularly relevant in the Irish context, where more than half of working women avail of part-time working arrangements.

Not only is reduced work time not tied to increases in environmental stress, there is considerable evidence that reducing work time might lead to emissions reductions. Research has shown that longer working hours are positively associated with a state’s ecological footprint, carbon footprint, carbon emissions and energy consumption. Relatedly, national household-level studies have revealed a positive relationship between hours worked and energy-intensive consumption, conspicuous expenditure and non-sustainable lifestyles. Conversely, working less creates opportunities for people to engage in less carbon-intensive consumption and more pro-environmental behaviors such as meal planning to reduce waste or even growing food. There are also opportunities for people to engage in circular economy practices, such as learning how to upcycle clothes or furniture.

Perhaps most significantly from an environmental perspective, reduced work time provides individuals and communities more time to engage in climate action. Recent research from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that a large majority (85 per cent) of Irish people are worried about climate change, and more than half are willing to volunteer time to an organization working on climate change or engage in political actions to limit climate change. Political engagement can take many forms. For some, it might involve becoming involved in nonviolent civil disobedience, such as supporting our youth in the Friday’s for the Future strikes.

For others, political activism could take a more traditional form, such as contacting local representatives or attending public consultations on environmental-related matters. Such forms of public participation can drive policy implementation, keep public representatives accountable for their political commitments, and provide progressive leaders with a mandate for change. Others may spend their free time engaging in environmental education or community greening initiatives. Such activities build social trust and community cohesion and can help offset feelings of eco-anxiety.

Regardless of what form of climate action people may take on their day off, if any, reduced work time offers our society the opportunity to prioritize our wellbeing while creating the necessary space to make the behavioral, sociocultural and institutional change needed to help address the intensifying environmental crises.

Orla Kelly is an assistant professor in social policy at UCD

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