People with mud masks at Iceland's famous Blue Lagoon. (Mlenny/Getty Images)

Iceland Ran a 4-Year Experiment on Shorter Working Weeks. The Results Are Great

7 JULY 2021

For four years between 2015 and 2019, roughly 2,500 Icelanders were involved in two major experiments to see how a shorter working week would affect productivity. Now the results are in – and the experiments seem to have been a resounding success.

 

Some key points: reducing a 40-hour working week to 35 or 36 hours didn't lead to any drop in productivity or the provision of services, while worker wellbeing improved substantially across a range of metrics, including perceived stress and burnout.

Since the trials were carried out, around 86 percent of the entire workforce in Iceland has moved to a shorter working week, and there's hope from the researchers behind the tests that these ideas could be applied in other countries as well.

"Across both trials, many workers expressed that after starting to work fewer hours they felt better, more energized, and less stressed, resulting in them having more energy for other activities, such as exercise, friends and hobbies," states the published report.

"This then had a positive effect on their work."

A wide range of workplaces were involved in the four-year period covered by the trials, from hospitals to offices, and over 1 percent of the entire working population of Iceland took part. Employees were kept on the same pay even though their hours were cut.

And the hours really were cut – the results published by the Association for Sustainability and Democracy (Alda) in Iceland, and the UK think-tank Autonomy, showed that there was no noticeable rise in overtime for the majority of staff. Shorter meetings, shift changes and the cutting out of unnecessary tasks all helped workers stick to their new regime.

 

Working four or five fewer hours per week actually forced people to get creative with how they did their jobs – and while some participants in the trials said they initially struggled to adapt, most of those involved soon got used to a new way of working.

"Instead of doing things the same, usual routine as before, people re-evaluated how to do things and suddenly people are doing things very differently from before, and people also co-operated in this," said one of the participants in the trials.

On the wellbeing side, those involved reported less stress at work and a better work-life balance on the whole. In follow-up interviews, participants mentioned benefits including having more time to do errands and home duties, having more time to themselves, and being able to do more exercise.

The published report declares the trials in Iceland "a major success", with both managers and staff managing to spend less time at work without actually affecting the amount and quality of the work they do – something we've seen in previous research.

Perhaps most tellingly, the majority of participants were keen to carry on with the new way of working – something to consider as workplaces around the world readjust to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It has become more and more clear that few wish to return to pre-pandemic working conditions: a desire for a reduced working week is set to define 'the new normal'," concludes the report.

You can read the report in full on the Alda website here.