‘Overwhelming success’: Study shows work-life balance benefits of four-day workweek in Iceland

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A study showed a four-day work week had a tremendously positive effect on workers.

The study followed 2,500 workers in Iceland from 2015 to 2019 who cut their hours from 40 a week to 35 or 36 hours.

Autonomy, the independent think tank that published the study, said it appeared to be “by all measures an overwhelming success.” The Reykjavík City Council and the Icelandic national government initiated the study, which involved more than 1% of Iceland’s workforce.

Productivity remained the same or was improved. The workers were paid as if they were working a 40-hour week, meaning their pay did not decrease despite working fewer total hours.

The most notable change was in workers’ wellbeing, which “dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.”

The study involved a wide range of professions:

The trials evolved to include nine-to-five workers alongside those on non-standard shift patterns, and took place in a wide range of workplaces, from offices to playschools, social service providers and hospitals.

The reduction in hours forced employers to rethink their approach to meetings, often leading to shorter meetings or reducing the number of meetings. In addition, the change also caused places to examine their processes and find more efficient ways to accomplish tasks. Workers also streamlined their workdays and schedules.

In most cases, the changes had little negative impact on productivity.

Shortening work hours didn’t come without some challenges. There was an adjustment period in which managers worried about productivity, with some scrambling to come up with plans to make sure they maintained the same level of output. Other managers didn’t feel like they could work shorter days even though their staff did, and at some places, the pace of work increased. A few workers with irregular hours also said communicating information with other shifts became more challenging after the reduced hours went into effect.

Overall, though, the study concluded that the benefits to the workers outweighed those challenges. Employees involved in the study noted several benefits of reducing work hours:

  • Better work-life balance
  • Easier to do errands
  • More time for housework
  • More time to themselves
  • More family time
  • Reduced stress
  • More exercise

The results of the study have had a real-world impact on workers in Iceland:

Following the trials’ success, Icelandic trade unions and their confederations achieved permanent deductions in working hours for tens of thousands of their members across the country. In total, roughly 86% of Iceland’s entire working population has now either moved to working shorter hours or have gained the right to shorten their working hours.

Similar trials are underway in other countries, including Spain and New Zealand.

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