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Four lessons the U.S. can take from Iceland's hugely successful 4-day workweek trial

Four lessons the U.S. can take from Iceland's hugely successful 4-day workweek trial
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The country of Iceland has released the analysis of its 4-day work week experiment and the results speak for themselves.

The trials run by Reykjavík City Council and the national government took place from 2015 to 2019 and included about 1% of Iceland's working population, making it the world's largest shortened workweek trial to date. The findings show that paying people the same amount to work fewer hours per week results in a happier, healthier workforce with similar or increased productivity. Who knew?

Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy, a UK think tank that co-conducted a study of the trials, said in a statement: "This study shows that the world's largest-ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success. It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks—and lessons can be learned for other governments."

So what are those lessons we can learn?

1) There's nothing magical about a 40-hour workweek.

Most of the workers in the trial reduced their hours from 40 hours per week to 35 or 36, without any decrease in productivity. In fact, the study found "Productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces."

Forty hours is an arbitrary number that was initially instituted in the U.S. as a response to the inhumane factory hours workers were forced into at the dawn of the industrial age. And this isn't the first study to show that working fewer than 40 hours isn't some magical, ideal number of working hours. A New Zealand company that cut its hours to 32 hours a week had similar results as this Iceland trial—happier employees and no loss in productivity.

2) Paying people more for their time may actually make them more productive.


It's not just that people worked fewer hours in this trial—they worked fewer hours but still made the same amount of money, effectively upping their per-hour wage. Iceland already boasts one of the highest average income levels in the world, so a higher hourly wage may not have had a huge impact there, but since productivity didn't decrease despite the fewer hours, it's possible that people work more efficiently when the value of their time is reflected in their pay.

Considering the debates over a living minimum wage in the U.S., seeing the correlation between pay and productivity is interesting, to say the least.

3) Happier, less stressed humans make better, more efficient workers.

This should really be a no-brainer, but it's good to see additional data to back it up. Happy workers are better workers.

U.S. work culture tends to reward "the grind," and celebrates people who "go the extra mile" at work, but studies like this one keep showing that overworking is not the way to increase productivity. As the Autonomy study points out:

"Worn down by long hours spent at work, the Icelandic workforce is often fatigued, which takes a toll on its productivity. In a vicious circle, this lower productivity ends up necessitating longer working days to 'make up' the lost output, lowering 'per-hour productivity' even further."

And conversely, the study states:

"Countries with greater productivity per hour usually have fewer hours of work. Furthermore, not only does greater productivity usually correlate with shorter work hours, but as productivity increases, working hours tend to go down over time."

4) A healthier work-life balance actually makes people like their jobs more.

Are people unhappy at work because they don't really like their work, or because they are simply working too many hours? According to the Iceland trial, working less made people enjoy their work more (which probably also contributes to greater productivity).

"[Workers] kind of had a greater energy on the job and actually enjoyed their work a bit more, which sounds very rosy," Stronge told CBC Radio's "As It Happens." "But that is what comes out of a lot of these trials, is that people feel actually more attached to the job. In a way, they feel rewarded by having more time."

Naturally, there are a few caveats here. These trials were conducted on public sector jobs, so they may not be perfectly applicable in all industries. However, the public sector makes up approximately 15% of the workforce in the U.S., which is nothing to sneeze at. Direct country-to-country comparisons are also tough, considering variations in economies, demographics, lifestyles, cultures, etc., but some lessons are simply universal. A healthy work-life balance is a human need, not an Icelandic one, and we can all benefit from creating a culture where family time, rest time, personal creative time, and leisure time are considered just as valuable as our work time.

Thanks, Iceland, for the push to move in that direction.

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