Iceland sees success with 4-day work week

‘Reductions in working time can increase productivity and improve workers’ wellbeing and work-life balance’

Iceland sees success with 4-day work week
In 2015 and 2017, two major trials of a shorter working week were initiated by Reykjavík City Council and the Icelandic government.

Having rolled out a major program that reduced the work hours of more than 2,500 workers to four days per week, Iceland is calling the trials “a major success.”

“Workers experienced significant increases in wellbeing and work-life balance — all while existing levels of service provision and productivity were at the very least maintained, and in some instances improved,” says the report Going Public: Iceland’s Journey to a Shorter Working Week.

“The trials have shown that shortening working hours can have a powerful positive effect on work-life balance…  the positive changes identified by participants ought to place shorter working hours as a prime strategy for other governments looking to address work-life balance and wellbeing deficiency in their economies.”

Given the success, Icelandic trade unions and their confederations achieved permanent reductions in working hours for tens of thousands of their members across the country. In total, roughly 86 per cent of Iceland’s entire working population has now either moved to working shorter hours or have gained the right to shorten their working hours.

Eighty-eight per cent of office workers in Canada would take a four-day work week if it was offered, found a 2019 survey released by Citrix.

1% of population

In 2015 and 2017, in response to campaigning by trade unions and civil society organizations, two major trials of a shorter working week were initiated by Reykjavík City Council and the Icelandic national government.

These eventually involved more than one per cent of Iceland’s entire working population — many of which moved from a 40-hour to a 35- or 36-hour working week without a reduction in pay.

The trials evolved to include nine-to-five workers alongside those on non-standard shift patterns, and took place in a wide range of workplaces, from offices to playschools, social service providers and hospitals.

In 2018, British Columbia company Beelineweb saw success in deciding to make the shift to four days of work per week.

Benefits of reduced hours

Workers involved in the trials experienced improvements in wellbeing at work while control workplaces working at full hours showed no such improvements, according to the report.

Across both trials, many workers said they felt better, more energized and less stressed, resulting in them having more energy for other activities, such as exercise, friends and hobbies. This then had a positive effect on their work.

“Worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance,” says the report.

The shift to shorter working hours also led to better work-life balance and made it easier for workers to do errands and participate in home duties, according to the report. And productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces.

After spending August 2019 experimenting with a four-day work week in a country notorious for overwork, Microsoft Japan said sales per employee rose 40 per cent  compared with the same month last year.

Overtime concerns

One popular concern about a shorter working week is that it will unintentionally lead to overwork: to maintain the same output, workers will simply end up making up their ‘lost hours’ through formal or informal overtime. But the trials directly contradict this concern, says the report from the Association for Sustainability and Democracy (Alda) in Iceland and U.K. based think-tank Autonomy.

“The stated reduction in working hours did lead to staff actually working less as a direct result of workplaces implementing new work strategies, and through organizing tasks via cooperation between workers and managers… Most commonly, this was done by rethinking how tasks were completed: shortening meetings, cutting out unnecessary tasks, and shifts arrangements.”

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