Over the past six years, Iceland has been quietly conducting a major economic experiment. More than 2,500 public sector employees – representing over 1% of the country’s entire working population – reduced their working hours from 40 hours per week to 35 or 36 hours, with no loss of pay.
Trials of shorter working weeks are not new: in recent years a number of ‘four-day week’ experiments have taken place around the world – from Microsoft’s trial in Japan to Unilever’s experiment in New Zealand. But Iceland’s two trials, which took place between 2015 and 2021 among employees of the country’s national government and Reykjavík City Council, are unparalleled in terms of scale and scope. Progress was meticulously monitored by Icelandic researchers, which generated an unrivalled amount of evidence on the impact of shorter working hours. This week the key findings were published in a joint report published by Alda (Association for Sustainable Democracy) and Autonomy.
Despite the variety of workplaces involved, the reduction in working time generated a host of benefits for participants: they felt healthier, had more time to recuperate from work, and saw the atmosphere of their workplaces improve. Even with just two or three hours shaved off the week, people saw immediate improvements in their family life, their relationship to their colleagues and their own self-care. Not only did the trial improve workers’ wellbeing – it also had impressive effects improving ‘per hour’ productivity and service provision.
The results confirm what many of us know to be true anecdotally: a shorter working week would be a game-changer for our own wellbeing and quality of life in general.
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Crucially, the experiment created lasting change. After the trials finished, successful negotiations between employers and trade unions led to more than 86% of Iceland’s entire working population gaining the option to reduce their working time – without losing a single Icelandic krona from their salaries.
Iceland’s experience shows how the public sector can take the initiative on a shorter working week, setting a standard which the rest of the economy can then respond to. Financial cost should not be seen as a prohibitive barrier: even where new staff will need to be hired to account for shorter working hours – in roles such as care work, teaching and nursing – much of the money required to pay salaries comes back to the government in the form of income tax and national insurance contributions, meaning that the net cost is relatively low.
Few places would benefit from these changes more than the UK, where working hours are among the longest hours in Europe. Evidence shows this has a devastating effect on our public health as well as our productivity statistics: in 2020, overwork was cited as the reason for a quarter of all sick days. The Icelandic trials provide even more evidence that a reduction in working time would be a powerful solution to both of these problems. At Autonomy, we have shown how ‘pioneering’ a four-day week in the UK public sector is both affordable and achievable.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that our working practices are not set in stone
So what can be done to move this agenda forward? Various four-day week campaigns have already sprung up around the world to mobilise support for the policy. The UK 4 Day Week Campaign recently launched an accreditation scheme, which already has a growing list of firms on its roster. Like the Living Wage campaign, the scheme aims to identify and praise first-mover businesses that implement a shorter working week and lead by example.
Trade unions also have a vital role to play, and many such as the CWU in the UK, Forsa in Ireland and IG Metall in Germany have already taken steps to promote shorter working hours. Others such as PCS Scotland have taken an interest in the topic too.
Political parties are also waking up to the transformative potential of a shorter working week. Parties as diverse as the SNP in Scotland, Mas Pais in Spain, and the Japanese government have all recently made commitments to a four day week, which illustrates the appeal of the policy across the globe.
Many people have long suspected that working less would benefit our wellbeing, health and productivity. The evidence from Iceland’s trial is simply the latest in a growing body of evidence that supports this.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that our working practices are not set in stone, and can be transformed in a short space of time. As countries around the world seek to recover from the pandemic, there has never been a better opportunity to rebalance our working lives and embrace a shorter working week.