Over the past few years – and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic – there has been a lot of talk about the pros and cons of a shorter working week on employee productivity, as well as their wellbeing.
Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland trialed a reduction of working hours from 40 hours to 35-36 hours without a reduction in pay.
The study began because of pressure from trade unions and civil society organizations, and the national government and the capital Reykjavik City Council responded by setting the trial up.
It started small, but swelled to 2,500 workers (around 1% of Iceland’s working population), and included both those who work a standard nine to five and those who work shifts, as well as a range of employers, including schools, offices and hospitals.
Now the results of the four-year study, and some follow ups, have been analyzed and published by think tank Autonomy and Iceland-based research organization Association for Sustainability and Democracy.
The results show that the productivity of the Icelandic employees – and managers – who took part either remained the same or improved while working fewer hours. There was also no change in workload, just a need to adjust how it was tackled.
In addition, as a result of the shorter working week, employee wellbeing significantly increased; they experienced less stress and burnout, and managed to achieve a better, more harmonious work-life balance.
As a result, employees reported that they felt more energized and able to do more activities in their free time, including spending time with family and family, exercise and hobbies.
There was also less interest in moving to part-time as a result of this shorter working week. This is potentially because working a few fewer hours a week freed up time for employees to do errands in the week, and then have their weekends freer for fun activities.
Another interesting element is that this study did not confirm the concern that a shorting working week leads to overwork as workers try to make up the ‘lost hours’ through formal or informal overtime.
Instead, the results showed that employees, and managers who wanted to set an example, did actually work fewer hours.
This was because workplaces actively focused on introducing new work strategies – including fewer, shorter meetings, cutting out unnecessary tasks, fewer long coffee breaks and changing shift arrangements – and ensured that tasks were organized collaboratively between teams.
It also seems that employees were being more disciplined about the hours they worked and were less likely to work late.
The report concludes: “These effects were profound, and the trials were unsurprisingly popular among both staff and managers.”
This links with why the managers reported that job adverts stating reduced working hours attracted more applicants.
“Importantly, the widespread benefits on physical and psychological health, which we have seen here described by the trials’ participants, were sustained over the trials’ long timespan.”
As a result of the trial, Iceland’s trade unions have been pushing hard for Icelandic workers to have access to reduced working hours long-term. Now, 86% of the country’s workforce are working fewer hours or gaining the right to do so.
Therefore, the report adds: “This resilience, combined with the widespread uptake of shorter working hours contracts amongst Icelandic workers, can lead us to hope for transformative long-term health effects on workers, owing to less stress and burnout coupled with improved morale and wellbeing at work.”
Over the past year, attitudes towards the way we work have changed dramatically. Flexible working looks set to be the future for most, but these findings support the global roll out of shorter working hours or weeks to tackle the burnout crisis the pandemic has created?