Icelanders Report Better Work-Life Balance and Steady Productivity After Trying Out a Shorter Work Week

More time for afternoon naps!
More time for afternoon naps! / courtneyk/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If there’s one unifying thought among employees of all industries, it’s that the 40-hour work week doesn’t leave room for much else. And that’s not even counting commute time or overtime. Certain places have experimented with different models in the past—Microsoft Japan tried out a four-day work week in 2019, and some Swedish companies moved to a 30-hour work week in 2015—and the results are usually positive.

Iceland’s recent trials with a shorter work week proved successful, too. As BBC News reports, the country’s federal government and the Reykjavík City Council conducted a series of trials between 2015 and 2019 that included a total of about 2500 workers in a wide range of businesses: social services, government agencies, hospitals, preschools, traditional offices, and more. Each workplace set up its own schedule depending on when it made sense to shave off hours, but all participants worked around 35 or 36 hours a week with no change in salary.

Researchers were mainly interested in determining how the scaled-back work week would impact productivity and work-life balance. “One popular concern … is that it will unintentionally lead to overwork: to maintain the same output, workers will simply end up making up their ‘lost hours’ through formal or informal overtime,” the report explained [PDF]. But that didn’t happen. Instead, employees got rid of pointless tasks, shortened or cut out meetings, and generally streamlined their endeavors. The shorter week also resulted in a morale boost that made people more productive when they were at work.

On the work-life balance front, participants reported improvement in nearly every aspect of their lives. They experienced less stress at home, they exercised more, they had more time and energy for socializing, they didn’t have to devote their weekends to chores, and so on. Their kids reaped the benefits, too.

“My older children know that we have shorter hours and they often say something like … ‘Can I come home directly after school?’ and I might reply, ‘Of course,’” one father said. “We then go and do something—we have nice quality time.”

Certain male employees in heterosexual relationships claimed the extra time at home motivated them to shoulder more of the domestic duties than they had before. While many female participants still felt they outpaced their male partners in taking initiative for household tasks, the shorter work week did help some couples achieve more balance.

Considering all the glowing reviews—and conspicuous lack of any significant downside—for a shorter work week, it would seem strange for the participating institutions to return to a 40-hour model. And, in fact, many aren’t. Icelandic unions have negotiated new contracts to give roughly 86 percent of the nation’s workers the right to work shorter hours; and some companies have already made the shift.

“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 from Iceland’s Association for Sustainable Democracy (also known as Alda), said in a statement. “Our roadmap to a shorter working week in the public sector should be of interest to anyone who wishes to see working hours reduced.”

[h/t BBC News]