The Success of Iceland’s Shorter Working Week

Two major trials of shorter working weeks for Icelandic workers were organised by the Reykjavík City Council and the Icelandic government in 2015 and 2017. During the trial, workers were paid the same amount of money, but their working hours were decreased from the usual 40 hours per week to 35 or 36 hours.

The results indicated that the trial was an outstanding success as the productivity and service levels remained the same, and in some cases even improved, despite workers only working four days instead of the usual five. Worker wellbeing increased because of work stress reduction, and both health and work-life balance improved.

The analysis of the trial results was carried out by Autonomy, an independent think tank focused on the future of work, and research organisation Association for Sustainability and Democracy (Alda) in Iceland. 

“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,” says Will Stronge, Director of Research at Autonomy. “It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks – and lessons can be learned for other governments.”

2,500 Icelandic workers participated in the trials – around 1% of Iceland’s work population. The workers were either standard nine-to-five workers or non-standard shift workers, such as hospital staff. The trial took place in a wide variety of working environments, from schools to corporate offices and social services.

Following the trials’ success, many Icelandic trade unions have renegotiated the working hours for their members. This renegotiation resulted in 86% of the Icelandic working population having now moved to shorter working hours or gained the right to shorten their hours in the future.

“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,” says Gudmundur D. Haraldsson, a researcher at Alda, “Our roadmap to a shorter working week in the public sector should be of interest to anyone who wishes to see working hours reduced.”

Other countries have already started following that roadmap. Spain is piloting a four-day working week, in part due to the challenges of the coronavirus, and the company Unilever has given their New Zealand workers a chance to cut down their work hours by 20% without losing payment.

A poor work-life balance can lead to various mental health issues, according to the Mental Health Foundation. When working long hours more than a quarter of employees feel depressed (27%), one third feel anxious (34%), and more than half feel irritable (58%). Long hours at work also lead to more time worrying about work during time off. The Icelandic roadmap to a shorter working week might provide a solution to these mental health problems.