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The four-day working week: less money, more time, a happier life?

Health Wellbeing and Productivity

Person wearing yellow gardening gloves planting a small tree


In the first lockdown of 2020, as the pandemic stopped construction in its tracks, I was put on notice of redundancy. I suddenly had a lot more spare time on my hands and started looking around for things to do. I’ve been acutely aware of the climate and ecological emergency for some years now, and so I started looking for ways I could make more of a difference at a local level. This led to me joining a travel campaign group, to start discussions on renewable energy schemes in our community, and a number of other initiatives.

In late 2020, I joined Cundall and found it impossible to maintain my level of commitment to the local environmental campaigning alongside a full-time job. At first, I disengaged from the campaigning, which felt both painful and disheartening. I soon realised that the small amounts of voluntary work I could squeeze into evenings and weekends was not enough. It took a while to reconcile my appetite for positive change with my desire to continue working full-time at Cundall - it required a radical (if slow) shift in mindset and approach. Eventually, by the autumn of 2021, I decided that reducing my working days from five to four was the only way to balance all my commitments to work, community, and the environment. I thought it was unlikely that compressing a full 37.5 hours into four days would be acceptable and understood that, if this wasn't possible, I would take a pay cut. Whilst this would have an inevitable toll on our household, it felt like an option worth exploring.

I was encouraged when Cundall was happy and willing to discuss the possibility of a reduced hours contract. I was particularly impressed with how enthusiastic their approval was in light of the environmental campaigning and organising I was intending to resume. After discussions with my line manager and HR, it was agreed I would work four days a week (with Tuesdays as my 'non work' day). The financial adjustment was initially challenging but through some trial and error (plus some careful budgeting) I eventually found it manageable and actually quite satisfying! I found myself understanding the mantra ‘less is more’ a little better. I started a trial period on the 1 February this year. I'm now two and a half months in and I absolutely love it.

I find it amusing that I call it a ‘non work’ day, because I am still doing a lot of work. The biggest distinction is the absence of financial compensation: there is some volunteering, but much of what I do is self-directed. The absence of monetary reward becomes insignificant in the face of the intrinsic benefits I’m experiencing: deep satisfaction, improved mental well-being, reduced anxiety about the global existential crisis, the simple happiness derived from the knowledge that I’m trying to make a change.

What I do each Tuesday varies. Broadly speaking, I aim to break the day into two halves. In the morning I work at the computer. This ranges from emailing local councillors or my MP about cycle path maintenance issues, responding to local authority consultations on the climate emergency or improvements to local walking and cycling infrastructure, through to research on community renewable energy. By midday, I really want to get out-doors. I’m lucky enough to live in a small village just up the Tyne Valley from Newcastle, so we’re surrounded by beautiful green spaces. My partner has started an Incredible Edible community group, through which we’ve been able to apply for hundreds of trees from the Woodland Trust. We’ve liaised with our local council and the local community about spaces where planting would be welcomed, and I help plant the trees. One day, I will also help with harvesting the fruits and nuts from many of these trees.

Our village was born of coal mining in 1896. The Clara Pit closed 70 years later, and the village nearly died along with it. In 2018, an initial feasibility assessment indicated there was strong potential for harnessing geothermal heat from the flooded mine workings beneath the village for heating homes. I devote some of my Tuesdays to further researching this as an energy source alongside other options such as community-owned solar panels. There is a local conservation group that formed in the 1980s to turn the old coal mine pit head into a space where nature would re-establish. Their volunteer days are frequently weekdays which I couldn’t previously attend. Now I’ve been able to volunteer with them often, coppicing, clearing storm-felled trees and working on fences to contain the Exmoor ponies that visit each year for a few months.

My partner and I are now looking at starting another community group, that could be a vehicle for implementing community renewable energy and potentially taking on land around the village that could be actively or passively rewilded. This change to my work/life balance is an on-going story, but the experience so far has felt transformational. I’m incredibly grateful to Cundall for having the flexibility to let me do this.