Want to help the environment? First fix your work-life balance

Take that extra hour off work. Just don’t spend it burning coal or petrol. Rawpixel/Shutterstock.com

When it comes to climate change, do you practice what you preach? While many of us express strong concern about the issue, there tends to be a yawning gap between this concern and many people’s willingness to actually act on it by doing things like using less power or petrol.

Why should we care about this “value-action gap”? Well for one thing, these practices can make a big difference: up to an estimated 20% of household emissions, according to one US study. Things like using housing insulation and public transport, if done on a wide enough scale, can seriously help the world avoid major climate change.

Many might attribute this gap to “cheap talk” – people say they care, but they don’t really. But survey after survey has shown that people are truly aware of the risks of climate change, and that it is a growing source of emotional distress. In Australia, national surveys in 2010 and 2012 showed that public acceptance and concern about climate change has remained very high, and that it is viewed as a genuine threat by many people across different ages, regions and income levels.

A much more disturbing idea is that people’s choices are shaped by their work and social settings, and that people’s lifestyles therefore hold them back from taking action. This is the crux of what the downshifting movement has been telling us about for decades: that your choices are not just yours alone, but are heavily shaped by the environment in which you live, the hours you work and play, and the social norms you embrace.

What time to adapt?

My colleagues and I re-analysed this extensive survey database, and found evidence to support this idea. Working conditions do indeed seem to influence the extent to which people act on their environmental concerns.

After controlling for a range of demographic variables and household income, we found that people who work longer hours tend to have a significantly larger gap between the extent to which they are concerned about the environment, and their actual engagement in environmentally sustainable practices.

It is tempting to attribute this to the effect of income – people who work longer are probably richer as well. But then again, wouldn’t more money make people better able to act on their concerns?

Here’s the catch: while the rich who declare themselves to be concerned about climate change do tend to buy environmentally friendly products, our results show they are also much less much likely to engage in time-consuming practices concerning how their goods are used, such as conserving electricity and fuel.

So what?

Our results suggest that policies to improve work-life balance and working conditions may deliver important environmental dividends. When it comes to adapting to climate change, governments and employers would do well to consider how long working hours can get in the way of environmentally sound behaviour.

Currently, millions of dollars are spent every year on public information and engagement campaigns to encourage the voluntary adoption of environmentally sustainable practices. Yet evidence suggests that such campaigns are relatively ineffective, partly because behaviour patterns are “locked” into existing lifestyles.

What’s more, as the economist Clive Spash has pointed out, standard “tax-and-subsidise” measures, such as both the carbon tax and the government’s Direct Action plan, are recognized to be both slow and costly to implement, and run the risk of reducing people’s motivation to take their own voluntary action.

In other words, there is a danger that the more people formally pay for carbon emissions, the less likely they are to do their bit to reduce their own carbon footprint.

Rather than narrowly focusing on taxing and subsidizing our way towards a more sustainable economy, we need to find way in which we can encourage people to act voluntarily on their environmental concerns. Rather than merely raising public awareness about climate change, the real challenge is to ensure that people have the broad capacity to respond to these messages.

Measures to improve work-life balance may help people to adapt their lifestyles so they can act on their environmental concerns.

The daily grind

For those of us caught in the daily balancing act between work and everything else, the advice is simple. Do take that opportunity to go home an hour early – not only are you safeguarding your mental health, you are also encouraging others to lead lifestyles that are more reflective of their values, environmental or otherwise.

Of course, if you go home and decide to burn coal for an extra hour, that’s not true.

But chances are that you, like most people, are concerned about climate change but just haven’t had the time to really think about what exactly you can do about it.

It’s time to change that – and that’s something that governments and employers, by implementing measures which promote a better work-life balance, can help out with too.