Iceland’s Four-Day Workweek: “An Overwhelming Success Story”

In recent years, calls to reduce working hours without a reduction in pay have become more common in Europe, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only increased this desire. 

Iceland was one of the first countries to attempt the introduction of a shorter working week. To help understand the effects of the 4-day workweek, two trials were conducted in the country in 2015 and 2017, supported by the trade union confederations BSRB. The first was organized by the Reykjavík city authorities, and the second was by the Government of Iceland

As a result, a comprehensive report has been compiled to provide an overview of the trials’ developments and outcomes. We have read the results and would like to share some of the key findings. For anyone interested, the full report is available here.

How Did Icelandic Government Offices Reduce Working Hours? 

Government offices reduced working hours to address poor work-life balance and understand if shorter working hours could increase productivity. Initially, two workplaces were selected and their hours were shortened. Later, the trial expanded to include offices, playschools, city maintenance facilities, care homes for people with various disabilities and special needs, and the Reykjavík City Mayor’s office. Hours per week were shortened from 40 hours to 35 or 36, depending on the particular workplace.

How Many Workers Participated in the Four-Day Week Trial in Iceland?

The trial conducted in Reykjavík was implemented by the city authorities and the BSRB trade union confederation. Initially starting with a dozen of workers the trial expanded to over 2,500 staff in a few years. 

The Icelandic Government trial included 440 staff members in 17 workplaces and four control groups and was further expanded to include the Internal Medicine department of a hospital in Akranes in the West of Iceland. In total, the trials encompassed around 1.3% of Iceland’s total workforce.

What Did the Study in Iceland Look at Specifically?

The trial had two main purposes: to see if working time reduction could address poor work-life balance, given the centrality of this concern to the pre-existing public campaign, and to understand if shorter working hours could increase productivity while maintaining workers’ existing salaries. 

What Benefits Did the Workers Report Feeling When Working Fewer Hours? 

The workers who participated in the trial reported feeling many positive benefits when working fewer hours. These included:

  • Improved well-being at work
  • Reductions in stress
  • Increased support from colleagues
  • More control over the pace of work
  • Improved work-life balance
  • More time for themselves and their families
  • The ability to do errands during the weekday instead of the weekends
  • Less stress at home, easier mornings at home, and more quality time with the family
  • Increased ability to exercise
  • Increased social well-being, and increased sense of autonomy
  • Single parents reported feeling less pressure to work on weekends while grandparents noted they had more time to spend with their grandchildren
  • Managers noted increased morale among their staff and felt there was more discipline in their workplaces 
  • Some workplaces reported an increase in job applications when they announced they were taking part in the trial of shorter working hours

What Percentage of Iceland’s Workforce Have Moved to Shorter Hours Post the Trial? 

The trials in Iceland have been successful; 86% of the employed population are now on contracts that allow them to work fewer hours, or at least have the right to do so in the future. This is a significant victory for workers’ rights.

Where Does All Go From Now?

The plans for Iceland after the 4-day workweek trial ended are to continue the path to shorter working hours. 

This includes offering contracts guaranteeing shorter working hours for tens of thousands of workers in Iceland, which have come to cover around 170,200 union members from Iceland’s 197,000 working population. 

Despite all the effort, the working week has not been cut down to 32 hours as it was during the trial. Instead, from 1 January 2021, the public sector has had their working day shortened by 13 minutes each day (65 minutes per week). And in the private sector, shop workers, those in financial services, and manual and industrial workers have had their working hours reduced by 35 minutes per week. Iceland is working towards 32 hours workweek by taking small steps. 

The conclusion from the Icelandic trials is that working time reduction can have a powerful positive effect on work-life balance and well-being, and should be considered a viable policy across contemporary advanced economies. 

Piotr Gacon
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