Results from the longest trial to date involving a shorter working week have been published. The pilot project was carried out in Iceland and ran from 2015 to 2019. “It was an overwhelming success,” says director of research at the independent British research center Autonomy, describing the abbreviated working week.
For years, Iceland was able to compete with Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland in terms of social provisions for citizens, such as a robust health system and paid parental leave. But Icelandic citizens had to work longer hours than those in other generous countries. It wasn’t good for work-life balance.
A pilot project was launched from 2015 to 2019. It involved more than 2,500 employees from the capital, Reykjavik, and from the national government, representing more than 1 percent of Iceland’s active population. Participants from various branches of the public sector – including managers – moved from 40 hours of work per week to 35 or 36 hours, with no loss of wages. Not everyone had a nine-to-five job, and some had irregular working hours.
It now appears that the results of the large-scale pilot project are in line with those of previous studies: everyone felt happier, healthier, and more productive. “A landslide success,” sums up Will Strong. He is director of research at the Autonomy Research Centre, which published the research findings with the Icelandic Association for Sustainability and Democracy (Alda). “This shows that the public sector is ready to start shorter work weeks, and lessons can be learned for other governments,” Strong added. The process has also proven to be cost-neutral for both Reykjavik city services and the national government.
A gift from God
Productivity remained stable or even increased, despite the shorter working hours. Employees felt better about themselves, experienced less stress and were less likely to be fatigued. The work-life balance was better, too, because there was more time for chores, hobbies, chores, and family. “It was a gift from heaven,” the report quoted a Reykjavik executive as saying. “I think its really cool.” Both managers and employees considered the experiment a success. The working time was more efficient. Meetings in particular were often shortened or simply replaced with emails to avoid wasting time.
The investigation was not a dead letter. Unions have begun negotiating and as of 2019, according to the report, 86 percent of Iceland’s active population has actually been reduced or at least entitled to a shorter working week. “The Icelandic route to a shorter work week tells us that not only is it possible to work less in the modern age, but that gradual change is also possible,” said ALDA researcher Gudmundur de Haraldsson.
Previous studies and experience have also shown the benefits of reducing the hours worked per week. Pilot projects are still underway in Spain and at Unilever in New Zealand. “We must continue this journey,” said Icelandic MP Bjarke Olsen Gunnarsdottir. “It seems to me that the next step is to reduce working time to 30 hours a week.”
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