A shorter workweek without reduced pay improved worker well-being and work-life balance, while maintaining or even improving worker productivity, a new study co-published by the Icelandic Association for Democracy and Sustainability (ALDA) and independent think tank Autonomy shows. Will Stronge, Director of Research at Autonomy told the BBC that “the world’s largest ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success” and has valuable takeaways for other governments around the world.
The study, called “Going Public: Iceland’s Journey to a Shorter Working Week,” analyses findings from a series of trials conducted by the City of Reykjavík from 2014-19 and the Icelandic government from 2017-21. In both trials, workplaces moved from 40-hour to 35 or 36-hour workweeks, without any reduction in pay for employees. The City of Reykjavík trial eventually included a total of 2,500 workers—more than 1% of Iceland’s workforce. Workers from offices, playschools, city maintenance facilities, care homes for people with disabilities, schools, museums, and the mayor’s office took part, among others. The government trial expanded on this initial trial, with the aim of understanding if the shortening of hours would have a positive impact on “both those who work irregular shifts as well as traditional daytime workers.” Four workplaces took part in the latter study: the Directorate of Internal Revenue, the Directorate of Immigration, Registers Iceland, and a police station in the Westfjords.
The trials “directly contradict” the frequently cited concern that “will unintentionally lead to overwork,” namely that in order “to maintain the same output, workers will simply end up making up their ‘lost hours’ through formal or informal overtime.” Instead, workplaces dealt with this concern by “implementing new work strategies, and through organising tasks via cooperation between workers and managers.” Strategies ranged from shortening meetings and rethinking shift plans to getting rid of longer coffee breaks during the work day.
Overall, participating workers reported feeling more energised after adjusting to their new, shorter schedules, and less stressed. They reported a better work-life balance, with more time for errands, to see family and friends, and just more time for themselves. They reported less stress at home and more time for exercise. “Many male participants in heterosexual relationships took a greater role in home duties after the trial started,” the study notes, “especially around cleaning and cooking.”
Shorter workweek has had a “negative effect,” argues police union chair
Not everyone is equally enamored with the shorter work week and its impacts, however. According to Fjölnir Sæmundsson, the chair of Iceland’s National Police Union, the shorter workweek has, for one, led to understaffing. He told Vísir that it had been estimated that the equivalent of 75 full-time personnel would need to be hired once the workweek was shortened, but the number of police officers employed has remained roughly the same. Fjölnir also said that officers are experiencing more stress.
“People have to come into work more often and are more stressed because there aren’t enough people on duty, especially out in the countryside,” he said. “I was just talking, for example to a man who runs an investigation unit who said that when people take off on Friday because of the shorter work week, their projects have to just wait until Monday because no one else has been hired. There’s no one to do it, which means it takes longer. People can’t just run faster; it’s been an out and out sprint already. The shortening of the work week has made it so that police officers are a bit tired. Police out in the countryside say they’re giving up—they can’t handle the stress.”
The National Commissioner of Police says that hiring is ongoing and that shift plans are still being adjusted to better accommodate the new hours and that things will be clearer in the fall.
Icelandic men work 12% longer weeks than women
Whether or not the shorter workweek is having a positive impact on workers in various sectors, it seems as though there are still gender-based discrepancies in working hours. A new report issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that the difference in working hours for men and women in full-time positions is greater in Iceland than any other country surveyed. One reason given for this is that the marginal income tax is higher on women in cohabitating partnerships than men.
The OECD report found that Icelandic men’s working week is as much as 12% longer than that of Icelandic women. In Sweden and Norway, by contrast, there’s a 3% difference; in Denmark, it’s 4%. Among other OECD countries, the difference averages around 6%.
The report projects that one explanation for the difference in Iceland is that marginal taxes, which allows for the sharing of personal allowances, are levied more on women than men. The joint tax credit is used more often by men than women, as they often have higher incomes, which gives women less incentive to work more. The report projects, however, that changes to parental leave policy in Iceland will likely reduce the difference in working hours over time.
“The Icelandic trials can play a flagship role”
Although there are clearly more conversations and policy changes to be discussed around the shorter workweek, the trials in the ALDA/Autonomy study have, according to its authors, already made a lasting and widespread impact in Iceland: local trade unions have “achieved permanent reductions 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 moved to working shorter hours or have gained the right to shorten their working hours.”
Looking beyond the local environment, the study concludes that given the broad participation in these trials (1% of the workforce) and the inclusion of workplaces, such as schools and maintenance facilities that are often presumed to be unsuitable for shorter working hours, “the Icelandic trials can play a flagship role in showing how working time reduction should be considered a powerful, desirable and viable policy across contemporary advanced economies.”
Read the full report, in English, here.