Iceland trialed giving thousands of workers a 4-day workweek and saw improvements in well-being and productivity

Reykjavik hosted the first of Iceland's four-day working week trials.
Reykjavik, Iceland. NurPhoto / Contributor Getty Images
  • Iceland experimented with giving some of its workers a four-day workweek.
  • One percent of Iceland’s workforce participated in two trials.
  • There was generally no reduction in productivity, and well-being improved, according to analysis.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The success of two four-day working-week trials in Iceland could act as an example for other governments, analysts say.

More than 2,500 people across 100 workplaces took part in two government-backed trials, representing roughly 1% of the country’s working-age population.

Many saw their workweek reduced to 35 hours from 40 without a reduction in pay and saw no real loss in productivity, according to joint analysis of the trials by the UK future-of-work think tank Autonomy and the Icelandic Association of Sustainability and Democracy.

We first saw the news via The Independent.

The results add credence to the concept of a four-day working week without a significant cut in pay, which has been increasingly pushed as a remedy for improving work-life balance, boosting employee performance, and helping the environment.

The trials were initiated by the Reykjavik City Council and the national government following lobbying by civil-society groups and trade unions, which claimed the nation lagged behind most of its Nordic neighbors in terms of work-life balance.

The first trial took place in the capital, Reykjavik, from 2014 to 2019 and initially saw childcare and service-center workers cut their hours to 35 a week from 40. It then expanded to encompass staff members in the mayor’s office and care homes.

The second, conducted from 2017 to 2021, saw 440 civil servants from several national government agencies reduce their hours. Their roles covered both traditional nine-to-five hours and irregular shift patterns.

Contrary to claims that working reduced hours could be counterproductive, and actually lead staff members to work longer, the analysis suggests that overall there was no overall loss of productivity or quality of service provided.

In fact, teams were encouraged to work more efficiently by reducing meeting time, reorganizing their schedules, and improving communication between departments.

There was also generally an improvement in worker well-being. Perceived levels of stress and burnout fell in many cases, with many employees saying they felt more positive and happy at work as a result of the new regime.

Participants say reduced hours meant they could spend more time exercising and socializing, which in some cases had an impact on their work performance. In workplaces where there was no noticeable improvement in well-being, there was also no marked decrease.

More governments could introduce 4-day-week trials

The researchers described Iceland’s trial as a “crucial blueprint” for how similar trials might be organized around the world, highlighting that in the years since trade unions had been able to negotiate the right to shorter hours for 86% of the Icelandic workforce.

“It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks – and lessons can be learned for other governments,” said Will Stronge, the director of research at Autonomy, in a statement issued alongside the analysis.

Iceland is not the only national government to test the concept of a four-day week.

In May 2021 the Spanish government approved plans for a three-year pilot and pledged 50 million euros to support businesses implementing the plans, according to The Guardian.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, has also highlighted the concept as a means of helping the economy bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2020 Iceland ranked 10th for the shortest working hours, according to latest figures by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, with Icelandic workers averaging 1,435 a year.

People in Germany worked the least hours in 2020, averaging 1,332 annually.

The 27 European Union countries collectively ranked 13th, with 1,513 hours worked annually on average.

In the 35th-placed US, workers notch an average of 1,767 hours annually.