Iceland experiments with a four-day work week

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Iceland is paving the way when it comes to striving for better work-life balance, having just wrapped up a series of trials shortening the typical five-day work week to four.

Starting in 2015, Reykjavik City Council and the Icelandic government launched the initiative spurred by pressure from trade unions and civil society organizations. Their goals were to reimagine citizens’ relationship with work and to determine if compressing office hours would actually enhance productivity.

Jack Kellam, a researcher at U.K.-based think-tank Autonomy, which studied Iceland’s approach, said the experiment proved successful. For the most part, employers found employee well-being increased as stress and burnout decreased and productivity stayed the same or rose.

“Over a course of a number of years, in which trials took place in these workplaces, results showed it had a transformative effect for these workers,” he said in an interview with CTVNews.ca on Nov 2.

He said many participants said they went to work better rested, better prepared, and more motivated for the working day.

“Workers managed to gather their existing working practices and working conditions and made changes to try and make them more efficient and productive…simple things like cutting out meetings, moving to emails,” he said.

The two trials, launched in 2015 and 2017, ultimately involved over 2,500 workers, or more than one per cent of Iceland’s entire working population, and included both nine-to-five and shift workers from a variety of sectors including health care and social services.

Importantly, employee compensation remained at pre-trial levels despite the drop in hours.

According to Autonomy’s summary report, many participants expressed enjoying more time with their families.

One father said, “My older children know that we have shorter hours and they often say something like ‘Is it Tuesday today, dad? Do you finish early today? Can I come home directly after school?’ and I might reply ‘Of course.’ We then go and do something — we have nice quality time.”

Others said they experienced less stress at home, more personal time, and better physical and mental health.

Fewer hours at work also reportedly increased productivity, as participants cut back on coffee breaks, water cooler chat, and unnecessary meetings. Many said they perceived Friday off as a “carrot” that kept them going.

“The overarching picture that emerges… is that the Icelandic trials strongly challenge the idea that a reduction in working hours will lower service provision. On the contrary, they show that productivity can, in many instances, be increased through working time reduction,” Autonomy’s report reads.

The trials also proved revenue-neutral for the city council and the government.

Following the experiment, Icelandic trade unions and their confederations secured permanent reductions in working hours for “tens of thousands” of their members across the country.

“In total, roughly 86 per cent of Iceland’s entire working population has now either moved to working shorter hours or have gained the right to shorten their working hours,” the report reads.

Kellam says that while the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a factor in the trials, as they’d finished before the disease arrived, the results are even more relevant today as people shift to an at-home work setup and studies show workers are placing more value in work-life balance.

“Prior to the pandemic the four-day work week or short working week was primarily being led by private-sector companies, businesses and so on, but I think we’ve increasingly seen public sector organizations taking interest,” he said.

“It’s given people an opportunity to reflect on their life, what they value and prioritize.”

He also said that a shortened work week policy should be implemented alongside parallel policies including a strict disconnect rule, – encouraging employees to officially “sign off” from work when they’re finished – raising base salaries so that people don’t feel compelled to have to work longer hours, and a lead-by-example approach, so employees feel empowered to make necessary scheduling changes.

These policies shouldn’t be reserved for only white-collar jobs either, Kellam said.

“Something we’re trying to do as a think-tank in our research is to show that a four-day week is a possibility across quite a wide range of sectors, it doesn’t just have to be confined to office work,” he said. “It’s about a more efficient way of sharing around the necessary labor of our economy.”

CANADIAN EXAMPLE

While Canada hasn’t initiated an experiment at this scale, some businesses owners are taking steps to shorten the work week.

Jamie Savage, CEO and founder of Toronto-based recruitment company The Leadership Agency, implemented a four-day work week for her employees in October 2020.

Savage said she initiated the move in response to observations of burnout midway through the pandemic.

“I saw emails coming in at one o’clock in the morning, working on Sundays, and I was like I’m tired and overwhelmed, I can only imagine how my team feels…I said, ‘we need to make a change, this is going to be irreversible damage if we don’t do something about it,’” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

“Two days later we were a four-day work week company.”

She said it took about three months for the policy to become effective as staff adapted to the change.

“We had to come up with stakeholder communication strategies, making sure our clients knew that their needs were going to be met, come up with time management strategies, and the biggest thing, we never wanted this to feel like it was going to be in exchange for something,” she said.

That included ensuring that her employees knew their pay wouldn’t be docked and there wasn’t an expectation they were to work overtime on the other days of the week.

Savage said that while there have been growing pains, the results a year in have been positive both culturally and financially.

“People started to invest in their physical health and well-being, we started to see this come alive. And since then, our revenue has more than doubled,” she said.

Leading by example is another key element of success, Savage noted.

“It was a real learning curve for me personally and the managers…people need to know it’s safe, we’re doing it, we’re walking the walk, talking the talk, and they’re safe to do it as well,” she said.

GOVERNMENT BACKING

As for a federal pilot, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t rule out the idea last year when asked about the possibility of implementing a four-day work week program following the pandemic.

“I think there are a lot of people thinking creatively about what the post-COVID world could look like,” he said, speaking to reporters in May 2020. “And I look forward to hearing a wide range of suggestions. But right now, we’re very much focused on getting through this particular crisis.”

In a statement to CTV News, Michelle Johnston, the director of communications for the Minister of Labour Seamus O’Regan, said only that the government encourages a flexible and respectful work arrangement for federally regulated employees.

“In the 2021 platform we committed to working with federally regulated employers and labour groups to co-develop a new policy for the right to disconnect so that, where appropriate, workers can disconnect at the end of a workday without worrying about job security and restore healthy work-life balance,” the statement reads.

The Ontario Liberals have indicated that if elected in June 2022, they would launch an initiative to “analyze the potential for a four-day work-week.”

“I want us to understand if it has merit here,” Leader Steven Del Duca told his party on Dec. 17. “We’re a party that believes in science, expertise and evidence-based decision-making and so I want us to gather the facts in an open and transparent way.”

The Nova Scotia municipality of Guysborough also experimented with a nine-month shortened work week trial in 2020 amid pandemic scheduling shake-ups.


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