As many people contemplate a future in which they don’t need to commute to offices, the idea of working less altogether also has its appeal. Now, research out of Iceland has found that working fewer hours for the same pay led to improved well-being among workers, with no loss in productivity. In fact, in some places, workers were more productive after cutting back their hours.
Granted, Iceland is tiny. Its entire workforce amounts to about 200,000 people. But 86% of Iceland’s working population has moved to shorter hours or has the right to negotiate such a schedule, according to a report by the Association for Democracy and Sustainability and the think tank Autonomy. This follows two successful trials, involving 2,500 workers, that the report called “a major success.”
The trials were conducted from 2015 to 2019. Workers went from a 40-hour weekly schedule to 35- or 36-hour weekly schedules without a reduction in pay. The trials were launched after agitation from labor unions and grassroots organizations that pointed to Iceland’s low rankings among its Nordic neighbors when it comes to work-life balance. Workers across a variety of public- and private-sector jobs participated in the trials. They included people working in day cares, assisted living facilities, hospitals, museums, police stations and Reykjavik government offices.
Participants reported back on how they reduced their hours. A common approach was to make meetings shorter and more focused. One workplace decided that meetings could be scheduled only before 3 p.m. Others replaced them altogether with email or other electronic correspondence. Some workers started their shifts earlier or later, depending on demand. For example, at a day care, staff took turns leaving early as children went home. Offices with regular business hours shortened those hours, while some services were moved online.
Some coffee breaks were shortened or eliminated. The promise of a shorter workweek led people to organize their time and delegate tasks more efficiently, the study found. Working fewer hours resulted in people feeling more energized and less stressed. They spent more time exercising and seeing friends, which then had a positive effect on their work, they said. One worker quoted in the research cited an increased respect for the individual as a motivating factor. Rather than being seen as machines that work all day, there was recognition that workers have desires and private lives, families and hobbies.