A social experiment in Iceland has investigated the pros and cons of working a four-day week. Now, the brains behind the trial have released a report and the findings are quite something: not only did people report feeling happier, healthier, and less stressed, many workplaces also became more productive.
From 2015 to 2019, two large-scale trials saw 2,500 people in Iceland (more than 1 percent of the country’s entire working population) cut their working hours from around 40 hours a week to 35 or 36 hours. The participants worked in a range of environments, including offices, shops, hospitals, daycare centers, etc, and involved those who worked a typical "9-to-5" day as well as non-standard shift patterns. Throughout the trial, the researchers interviewed workers and gathered data on their well-being and changes to the workplace.
The benefits were clear: peoples’ well-being increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and risk of “burnout,” to physical health and work-life balance.
Most participants reported having more energy for other activities, such as socializing, exercising, and hobbies, while explaining the cut in hours allowed them to spend more time with their families and made it easier to complete other home chores. These benefits were especially noticeable among the single-parent families included in the trials. Men in heterosexual partnerships also took on more housework and greater domestic responsibilities, sharing out the division of labor more evenly.
“I work less… For me, it is like a gift from the heavens. And I like it a lot,” one participant said in an interview.
Crucially, productivity was either maintained or improved in the majority of workplaces. The researchers put the improvement in productivity down to better morale at work.
“Morale has been good here, and always has, but it got even better,” a manager said.
Much of the data is self-reported, and though there is what the report calls quantitative data, it's unclear how things like work efficacy increases were measured across the board. However, following the apparent success of the trial, unions were able to renegotiate working patterns and now 86 percent of Iceland’s workforce has moved to a shorter working week.
“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,” Gudmundur D. Haraldsson, a researcher at Alda, said in a statement.
“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. It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks – and lessons can be learned for other governments,” added Will Stronge, Director of Research at Autonomy.
While Iceland is known for its socially progressive initiatives, it is not alone in its push towards a shorter working week. A number of similar trials are now being run across the world, including in Spain and New Zealand. Even Japan, a country with a notoriously intense attitude towards work, has recently encouraged workplaces to allow their employees to choose to work four-day a week instead of the typical five.
Update 14/07/21: While the report has gone on to gain international attention and widespread support on social media, a few people have argued the success of the trial has been "overstated." Writing for the Conversation, business professor Anthony Veal argues the results are "too good to be true" and only shows the success of working shorter hours, not shorter weeks.