Women sit in the shade in the Marunouchi district of Tokyo, on July 1. In Japan, amid official encouragement, companies are beginning to embrace a four-day working week. Photo: Bloomberg
The View
by Samir Nazareth
The View
by Samir Nazareth

How a four-day working week and ‘quiet quitting’ can help tackle climate change

  • In Asia, the ethic of hard work has metastasised into mental and environmental issues, and shorter working hours will require a massive mindset change
  • As the rest of the world has shown, working fewer hours brings happiness and productivity, boosts consumption, and is part of the business solution to climate change
“Quiet quitting” is gaining notoriety in businesses. A recent Harvard Business Review study looked at employee ratings of their managers and concluded it was a reaction to bad managers. Quiet quitters, it said, are those who “reject the idea that work should be a central focus of their life”. I would suggest that they are simply making a personal choice devoid of workplace influence.
Indeed, doing less collectively may be part of businesses’ answer to climate change and pollution. Around the world, the four-day working week is growing in popularity alongside the economic theory of degrowth, which focuses on sustainability and individual and social well-being.
The link between shorter hours and employee happiness is not new. Henry Ford cut the six-day week in his car factories to five in 1926; Kellogg’s cut the eight-hour shifts at its cereal plant to six in 1930. The results ranged from happier workers to safer workplaces. Today, companies across the world are increasingly embracing a shorter working day or week.
The UK has embarked on the world’s biggest four-day week trial, with thousands of workers on full pay being studied in a six-month trial that ends in November. In Iceland, which started trials in 2015, 86 per cent of the workforce have moved to shorter hours or have the option to do so. Spain and Belgium are following suit.

In Japan, amid official encouragement, companies such as Hitachi are introducing a four-day week while others, like Panasonic, plan to do the same. But the option of a four-day week does not always guarantee a reduction in working hours and, in some cases, can mean a pay cut.

The concept tends to be viewed from the perspective of individual well-being and corporate human resources – and not so much as an environmental necessity or a path to a more sustainable economy. Its acceptance, accordingly, is linked to socio-economic conditions.

From Singapore to Hong Kong and Japan, is a 4-day work week a pipe dream?

The 2007 study Working Time Around the World noted that “economic growth matters in reducing working hours until a certain point beyond which the impact of income on working hours becomes unclear and other factors must be playing a role”.

It observed that high-income countries enjoy “relatively short working hours, with the notable exception of some Asian countries such as Singapore and the Republic of Korea”. A recent Milieu Insight survey of receptivity in Southeast Asia to a compressed four-day week – the same number of weekly hours, but over fewer days – found that most people in Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia expressed interest.

While the benefits of a shorter working week but longer work day is debatable, it is clearly difficult for some cultures to let go of a 40-hour working week. This is especially so in the parts of Asia where the work ethic is ingrained.


Stressed out Chinese man suffers emotional meltdown in public

Stressed out Chinese man suffers emotional meltdown in public
In China, Confucian work philosophy has been synthesised into Xi Jinping Thought: “Happiness is achieved through hard work”. Hard work is equated with national progress, so that every citizen is responsible for China’s glory – “The Chinese are known as a hardworking and inventive people. Just as work and creative activities were responsible for the glorious achievements of our past, they have also been responsible for everything we have achieved today.”
This led to the 996 culture of working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, when a maximum of 44 hours a week is law. This philosophy, defended by tech entrepreneurs Jack Ma and Richard Liu, fuelled the Chinese economy but also led to problems.

The World Bank noted that, “China’s growth based on resource-intensive manufacturing, exports and low-paid labour has largely reached its limits and has led to economic, social, and environmental imbalances. Reducing these imbalances requires shifts in the structure of the economy.”


‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ explained

‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ explained

President Xi Jinping recognises this. “The carrying capacities of our resources and environment have reached a limit, the production function formula of the past is no longer sustainable,” he wrote in an essay last year on “new development”.

Instead, China should focus on “improving the quality and returns of economic growth, to promoting sustained and healthy economic development, and to pursuing genuine rather than inflated GDP growth and achieving high-quality, efficient, and sustainable development,” he wrote.

A four-day week, even a shorter workday, could achieve this. Already, millennials in China have begun “ lying flat” in response to the demanding work ethic.
The inefficiency of the old ways of working is backed up by research. A UK study, for example, found that employees are productive for only 2 hours 53 minutes a day. A shorter workday or working week will mean cutting unproductive company expenses, including energy, and also reducing pollution. Meanwhile, as employees’ mental well-being is improved, so should productivity.

How the ‘lying flat’ generation can push China towards common prosperity

But China’s ministry of human resources does not appear to agree, saying last year that there was “no realistic basis” for shortening working hours, after lawmakers proposed a 4.5-day working week.

Will economies run out of steam because people spend less time working? Ford observed that “leisure is an indispensable ingredient in a growing consumer market because working people need to have enough free time to find uses for consumer products, including automobiles”.

Shorter working hours is one part of the business solution to climate change, alongside working towards a closed-loop production to generate no waste, and a shift towards renewable energy.

The ethic of hard work has metastasised into mental and environmental issues. Shorter working hours will require a massive change in mindset, especially for Asia. But a four-day week and its derivatives is about working fewer hours – not about being less productive. The sooner we realise that, the better.

Samir Nazareth has worked in the development sector and writes on sociopolitical and environmental issues