From 2015 to 2019, Iceland ran the world’s largest trial of a shorter working week. An analysis of the results was finally published this week, and surprise! Everyone was happier, healthier, and more productive. Please pretend to be surprised.
The report was jointly prepared by the Association for Sustainability and Democracy (Alda) in Iceland and UK think tank Autonomy, who note that Iceland’s experiment could be used as a blueprint for future trials around the world.
“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,” said Will Stronge, Autonomy’s director of research. “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’s test consisted of two trials run by Reykjavík City Council and Iceland’s national government. The former involved over 2,500 people while the latter had 440, together making up more than one percent of the country’s workforce. Workers were moved from 40-hour work weeks to 35- or 36-hour weeks with no reduction in pay, and a wide variety of workplaces took part, including offices, preschools, social service providers, and hospitals. Not all participants worked traditional nine-to-five jobs either, with workers on non-traditional shift times also included.
Regardless of these variables, the results of the trials were overwhelmingly positive. Productivity either remained the same or actually increased, and worker wellbeing was considerably improved. Perceived stress and burnout went down, while health and work-life balance went up, as employees were given more time for housekeeping, hobbies, and their families. Both managers and staff considered the trials a major success.
“For me it is like a gift from the heavens,” said one manager in Reykjavík, according to the report. “And I like it a lot.”
Workplaces tried out various time reduction strategies to accommodate the shorter work hours. These included delegating and prioritising tasks more effectively, having shorter and more focused meetings, and yes, letting meetings that could have been emails just be emails.
The trials’ success has helped Iceland’s trade unions negotiate for permanently reduced working hours since 2019, affecting tens of thousands of their members. The report states that around 86 percent of the country’s entire workforce now either has shorter working hours, or the right to shorten their hours.
“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,” said Alda researcher Gudmundur D. Haraldsson.
This is far from the first time the benefits of a shorter work week have made themselves known. When Microsoft Japan trialed a four-day work week in 2019, productivity increased by almost 40 percent. New Zealand firm Perpetual Guardian permanently switched to a four-day work week in 2018 after their own trial saw productivity increase 20 percent. Companies around the world have tried shorter work weeks again and again, continually confirming the International Labour Organisation’s 2018 report that shorter work hours typically produce happier, more productive workers.
“We should continue on this journey, and I believe the next step is to reduce working hours to 30 hours per week,” said Icelandic parliament member Bjarkey Olsen Gunnarsdóttir.
Across the board, shorter work weeks have proved better for employees, employers, and society in general. It’s high time life caught up to the science.