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Protecting the environment by working less

Protecting the environment by working less


Though I’m deeply committed to protecting the environment, my efforts to live an eco-friendly lifestyle aren’t always successful. One of the main reasons for this is lack of time. I work long hours and have two young children who require a great deal of attention, so at the end of most days, I’m pretty much spent. If I manage to tidy up the house or do something fun with my family on the weekend, that feels like a win.

In theory, I’d like to (1) cook all our meals from scratch using locally sourced ingredients, (2) grow and preserve as much food as our small city lot can accommodate, (3) walk, bike, or take public transportation instead of driving, (4) repair things when they break rather than throwing them away, (5) hang our clothes out to dry instead of using the dryer, and (6) carefully sort and properly dispose of household waste, to avoid sending things to the landfill that could be donated or recycled. In reality, I sometimes do some of these things, which is better than nothing, but I would like my lifestyle to more fully align with my values.

That’s the primary reason why I’ve decided to transition the organization I lead to a four-day work week. When I initially heard of the idea of a four-day work week, I thought, “That must be nice, but it would never work for us, because we already have too much to do and not enough time to do it.” But the idea kept popping up, and as I learned more about the research that has demonstrated the benefits of a four-day work week, both for the environment and for worker productivity and satisfaction, I came to recognize that transitioning to a four-day work week (without cutting pay) would be a strategically smart move for our organization, because it aligns with our mission, values, and desire to attract and retain smart, committed employees.

Though we are officially moving forward with this change, I’ll admit that we’re not sure how it’s going to play out. We already have flexible schedules and don’t have staff meetings on Mondays or Fridays, so in theory, any employee who wants to can already squeeze their hours into four days. For some people, that might be a good option, but for the sake of everyone’s mental and physical health, I really do not want my staff to work 10-hour days, so I believe it’s important to reduce the number of hours we work overall.

That said, because of our workload and revenue sources (primarily grants, the biggest of which is paid based on billable hours), it wasn’t feasible for us to abruptly move to a 32-hour schedule. Instead, we’ve decided to reduce our work week by one hour per year for the next four to eight years. Whether we get all the way to 32 hours per week will depend on how things play out over time. Though I don’t think this is an ideal transition plan, it’s what was practical for us. (We were able to bake a gradual reduction of hours into the aforementioned grant budget for the next four years.) One good thing about this method is that it allows me to give my staff higher annual raises than I otherwise would have, in terms of how much they make per hour (i.e., same salary increase, but for fewer hours worked).

The challenge for me personally is that I was already struggling to get my job done in 40 hours per week, and now I’m supposed to do it in 39. So far, it’s not going well. I consistently work more than 40 hours, but I’m determined to change that within the next 12 months, both because I want to be a positive role model for my staff and because I recognize that I’m at risk of burning out.

I am therefore planning to create a more distributed leadership structure for our organization that allows me to focus on the things I’m good at and delegate responsibilities that I’m not well-suited for. This will require hiring additional staff, but I believe it’s worth the expense, because it will keep me sane and help the organization continue to function smoothly if and/or when I’m out of commission. I am also looking forward to slowing down a bit (e.g., by spending more time in my garden), because although I am deeply committed to my job, I don’t want my entire life to revolve around it.
When you stop and think about the compulsive urge many of us feel to be super productive and constantly working, it’s clearly at odds with our wellbeing. The history of how this cultural norm developed is fascinating and worth exploring, but that topic will have to wait for another day, because I recognize that the key to successfully transitioning our organization to a four-day work week will ultimately hinge on my ability to set appropriate boundaries for myself and my staff, or in other words, to stop working when the work day ends. I’ll practice that now by turning off my computer and moving on to other activities that constitute a healthy, balanced, eco-friendly lifestyle. I invite you to consider doing the same.

Abigail McHugh-Grifa, Ph.D., is executive director of Climate Solutions Accelerator of the Genesee-Finger Lakes Region.