Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland embarked on two massive trials to test the idea of a shorter workweek. The result was an astounding success for its workers — and a model that deserves to be replicated elsewhere.
Thanks in large part to organizing by trade unions, Iceland initiated two massive trials to test the idea of a shorter workweek. The premise of the trials, which began in 2015 and 2017, sought to measure what would happen if workers were given shortened hours with no reductions in wages. Their result, it turned out, was an overwhelming success in every sense of the word, and the model has since been made into a reality for nearly 90 percent of Icelandic workers.
A June report jointly published by the UK-based think tank Autonomy and the Icelandic organization Alda, titled Going Public: Iceland’s Journey to a Shorter Working Week, studied the mechanics, findings, and outcomes. In this interview, report coauthor Guðmundur D. Haraldsson speaks to Jacobin about the trials, what they revealed, and the potential the model could be replicated elsewhere.
Let’s start with some background. What exactly were these trials and how did the idea to test run a shorter working week come about?
The trials were actually two: one trial at Reykjavík — the largest municipality in Iceland — and another trial at the Icelandic government. Many of the participants moved from a forty-hour to a thirty-five- or thirty-six-hour working week. The first trial was started in 2015 and the other one in 2017.
Reykjavík started its trial before the government did. And while the city did run the trial in conjunction with BSRB, a confederation of unions, it was agreed in the Reykjavík City Council to start the trial — with all votes in favor of it.
There had been discussion in Iceland about shortening working hours — which Alda was a participant in — in the years leading to the trials. BSRB, other confederations, and unions had also participated and encouraged the same. It seemed that members of the council were positive to the idea of running a trial to see if it had a positive effect on staff, workplaces, and services.
The scale of the trials was quite significant, wasn’t it? What kinds of workplaces did they include?
The scale was quite large. The trials eventually involved over 2,500 workers — more than 1 percent of Iceland’s entire working population. The Reykjavík trial started small, but then evolved into a much bigger one.
Ultimately, the trials encompassed not only offices but also playschools, city maintenance facilities, care homes for people with various disabilities and special needs, and beyond. The Reykjavík City mayor’s office was included as well.
The report you coauthored details the outcome of these trials, which was truly extraordinary. What were the findings in terms of productivity and quality of service? And what did workers themselves experience?
Services were not impacted because of the trials: these remained the same. However, new strategies had to be developed to be able to achieve this, and this was done successfully. Measurements show that the quality of services was not impacted.
The impact on workers themselves was positive: Worker well-being increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout to health and work-life balance. Workers also indicated more happiness, both at work and at home, less stress and tension in the home, and having more time with their families. For many, having more time each day meant a lot.
The political and economic context in Iceland is perhaps one reason it was able to conduct these trials and has since made a shorter working week a reality for the majority of workers: as of 2019 union density was 90 percent, and the population is small and quite concentrated. These factors notwithstanding, would you say there’s good reason to believe that Iceland’s example of a shorter working week can be replicated elsewhere?
I believe that trials of shorter hours can be initiated anywhere there is significant interest in doing so, be it from local government, national government, companies, corporations, or nonprofits. It should be noted that there were also other, smaller trials here in Iceland, run by private companies, started purely out of their interest in trialing shorter hours (these trials were a success also). What is needed is interest and commitment in setting up a trial, running it, and involving stakeholders — workers, managers, etc. — to evolve workplace practices.
What is required also is a shared understanding that a successful trial of shorter hours can lead to benefits for everyone — workers, managers, the workplace itself, and so forth.