Trials of a four-day week in Iceland have been hailed as an “overwhelming success” by researchers who report public sector workers were able to maintain or improve their productivity while also boosting their personal wellbeing and work-life balance.
Iceland ran two large-scale trials of a reduced working week with no reduction in pay from 2015 to 2019.
The first trial was conducted in the capital, Reykjavík, by the city authorities and BSRB, a major trade union. Workers in the study included a mix of “nine to five” employees and those on non-standard shift patterns in offices, pre-schools, hospitals, and social service providers.
Starting from two workplaces with a few dozen workers, the first study eventually expanded to include 2,500 workers – over 1% of Iceland’s entire working population – many of whom moved from a 40-hour to a 35- or 36-hour working week.
A second trial began between the Icelandic government and BSRB in 2017, comprising around 440 public sector staff.
Reviewing gate studies’ results, researchers at think tanks Autonomy in the UK and the Association for Sustainability and Democracy (Alda) in Iceland found productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces, while worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.
By the time of the report’s publication in June 2021, 170,200 union members from Iceland’s 197,000-strong working population – or 86% of the country’s total workforce – now work shorter hours or are gaining the right to shorten their hours.
The trials also remained revenue neutral for both Reykjavík City Council and the Icelandic government, providing a crucial, and so far largely overlooked blueprint of how future trials might be organised in other countries around the world.
Unlike those of its Nordic neighbours, workers in Iceland are considered to have comparatively low productivity, long working hours, and poor work-life balance. Such is the strain on the country’s workforce that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has placed Iceland next to other work-intensive states like Chile, Mexico, and Japan.
Contrary to concern a shorter working week would unintentionally lead to overwork, with employees working harder to make up up their “lost hours” through formal or informal overtime, the trials found the reduction in working hours led to staff working less thanks to workplaces implementing new work strategies and greater cooperation between workers and managers.
Across both trials, workers expressed that working fewer hours left them feeling more energised and less stressed, resulting in them having more energy for personal activities. This, in turn, had a positive effect on their work.
Both male and female workers reported how shorter working hours made it easier to complete errands, such as shopping and cleaning, during weekdays rather than over weekends. As a result, workers were able to spend more quality time with their families.
In addition, stress was commonly reduced in the home after reducing working hours, with many male workers in heterosexual relationships taking a greater role in home duties during the trial, especially around cleaning and cooking, sharing out the division of labour more equitably.
Commenting on the trials’ results, Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy, said: “This study shows that the world’s largest-ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success. It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks – and lessons can be learned for other governments.
“Iceland has taken a big step towards the four-day working week, providing a great real-life example for local councils and those in the UK public sector considering implementing it here in the UK.”
Gudmundur D Haraldsson, a researcher at Alda, added: “The Icelandic shorter working week journey tells us that not only is it possible to work less in modern times, but that progressive change is possible too. Our roadmap to a shorter working week in the public sector should be of interest to anyone who wishes to see working hours reduced.”
Calls for shorter working weeks are growing around the globe, and similar trials have already begun. Spain is currently piloting a four-day working week for companies challenged by the covid-19 pandemic and increased automation.
Meanwhile, consumer goods giant Unilever is allowing staff in New Zealand to cut their hours by 20% without a reduction in pay. Also of note, Sweden famously trialed six-hour working days with mixed results.