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Long weekends could save the Earth. This is why

Working less could be the key to a greener planet. Image: Getty

The Queen’s Birthday long weekend was the perfect excuse to relax, sleep in or get out of town.

However, new research suggests the benefits of long weekends extend far beyond long lunch opportunities: four-day working weeks could save the planet.

“Our current working time and lifestyle models are deeply intertwined with a fundamentally unsustainable economy,” agenda contributor at the World Economic Forum Philipp Frey said in June.

“[This] demands us to endure long commutes due to overpriced housing and eat carbon-intensive, frozen foods since we lack the time to prepare decent quality meals ourselves.”

The UK on Wednesday pledged to bring carbon emissions down to zero by 2050.

Frey said that given the amount of carbon generated per hour worked, for countries like the UK to not only maintain a sustainable carbon level but significantly reduce the level, working times would need to be cut by nearly 80 per cent - reducing the working week to just nine hours.

“The transformation towards a more sustainable economy needs to go beyond merely cutting back the worst fossil fuel based industries a little: instead, we need to reevaluate our economic model and work regime more fundamentally, combining a move towards sustainable energy with a transformation of our transportation systems and a radical reduction in working hours,” he said.

While reducing the working week to nine hours is extreme, he suggested the UK move to a four-day working week as a transitional step.

In a paper for think tank Autonomy, Frey described the reduction in working hours as not only the “necessity to be lazy” - as coined by the son-in-law of Karl Marx, Paul Lafargue, but also a crucial step in reducing consumption.

The productivity argument

Outside of an ecological argument, shorter weeks also benefit workers and their attention spans.

“We have some good experiments showing that if you reduce work hours, people are able to focus their attention more effectively, they end up producing just as much, often with higher quality and creativity, and they are also more loyal to the organisations that are willing to give them the flexibility to care about their lives outside of work," Wharton School psychologist Adam Grant said at the World Economic Forum’s annual summit in Davos earlier this year.

Shorter working weeks can have major productivity benefits. Image: Getty

It was a sentiment backed up by economist and author of Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman, who said that policymakers have long been trying to find out how to provide workers with more leisure time.

"In the 1920s and 1930s, there were actually major capitalist entrepreneurs who discovered that if you shorten the working week, employees become more productive. Henry Ford, for example, discovered that if he changed the working week from 60 hours to 40 hours, his employees would become more productive, because they were not that tired in their spare time."

Kiwi richlister Andrew Barnes on Wednesday called on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to expand the approach of her government’s anticipated Wellbeing Budget.

Barnes was the first major businessperson in New Zealand to enact a four-day week, and he believes New Zealanders need to reconsider how they work on a daily basis.

"We talk about working smarter, not harder, but too often that is shorthand for a reliance on the digital devices that are making it impossible to separate our work lives from our home lives," he told the New Zealand Herald.

Barnes also recognised the ecological benefits.

Are we actually doing eight hours of work every day?

Writing in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted workers would eventually have 15 hour working weeks. However, in an OECD ranking of countries’ proportions of workers putting in 50+ hour working weeks, Australia came ninth.

But that doesn’t mean all of our hours are productive.

Parkinson’s Law dictates that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, and that certainly appears to be the case in many developed countries.

Working longer hours doesn't always mean more work gets done. Image: Getty

A 2017 UK study found that out of an entire working day, workers actually only spent two hours and 53 minutes working.

Anthropologist and author of Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber put it down to the growing number of essentially useless jobs, and warned that this type of work leaves a “scar across our collective soul”.

“Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled,” he observed.

And, he added: “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound.”

But Australia is beginning to take steps towards a shorter week.

Tasmanian-based financial services firm, Collins SBA introduced its four-day working week in 2017, after the managing director found he could get just as much work done in a shortened week when he began working part-time to spend time with his family.

“The idea of working shorter hours is to constrain your time and absolutely only work on the necessary,” Jonathan Elliott said.

“That’s great from a business perspective, and it’s a great way to achieve better work life balance.”

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