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Reimagining The 40-Hour Work Week

A person working on a laptop. (Elise Amendola/AP)
A person working on a laptop. (Elise Amendola/AP)

What would happen if full-time work meant less than 40 hours a week?

Just ask Aron Johannsson, who’s been working 36 hours a week since January:

“I go to the gym more and facilitate meeting friends more,” he says. “And also just some days just sitting and watch Netflix. … I would say I’m happier with this change.”

New research from Iceland found that people working shorter weeks are not only happier, but their productivity remained the same — sometimes, even better.

“The social experiences, which were enabled by even just a reduction in working time, quite quickly became really, really valuable,” Jack Kellam, co-author of the report on Iceland’s work week, says.

After a pandemic year marked by burnouts and a lack of separation between our homes and workplaces, is it time to reimagine the working week?


Jack Kellam, researcher at Autonomy, a UK based think tank. Co-author of “Going Public: Iceland’s Journey To A Shorter Working Week.” (@KellamJack)

Alex Pang, founder of Strategy and Rest. Author of several books, including “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less – Here’s How.” (@askpang)

Also Featured

Aron Johannsson, he’s been working 36 hours a week since January.

Emily Twarog, associate professor of history and labor studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Interview Highlights

On how working fewer hours a week improved worker happiness

Jack Kellam: “Our study was based on amalgamating lots of research that took place in Iceland … between 2015 and 2019 principally. So [it] involved over 2,000, 2,500 workers, which is in total over 1% of Iceland’s entire working population. And they took place principally within the Icelandic National Government Capital Cities Council. So Reykjavik City Council. So these are moves to reduce the working week by around five hours in a lot of instances. And alongside this reduction, there was no reduction in pay at the same time. So workers moved to less time, but were paid principally the same.

“So we pulled together this data, which was gathered both through interviews with participants as well as quantitative measurements of their performance and their sense of well-being. And we found overall that these trials have brought about a significant increase in the well-being of work-life balance of participants who move to shorter working hours. But I think really interestingly, we also saw that across the range of different workplaces were involved, which was from not only office work and administrative work, but also parts of hospitals and schools and so on. We found that the productivity and service provision had even stayed the same or improved over the course of time.”

What was most surprising to you about the results of this study?

Jack Kellam: “We know from a growing body of social scientific evidence, the benefits shorter working hours can bring to workers in terms of our well-being and work life balance. We’ve seen that from trials that have been taking place around the world, from Japan to New Zealand and so on. I think two of the main interesting, unique lessons from Iceland’s trials: on the one hand, are how even relatively small reductions in working hours, say three to five hours like many of these workers had. I think this is showing quite how powerful these can be.

“And workers often said they were surprised themselves by quite how transformative they’d found this reduction in working time. But beyond that, I think it also shows how real a possibility shorter working hours are for a range of different sectors and workplaces. So not just the standard administrative office work, which people often assume would be the prime port of call for short working hours. But also things, as I’ve mentioned, like forms of social care, child care, police stations were involved and so on. So I think those are the two maybe surprising or unique aspects of the study.”

You mentioned child care. Did you look at the circumstances of different workers? For example, how it affects parents who have at home responsibilities? 

Jack Kellam: “I think one of the common experiences and stories that comes out of the wealth of interviews and qualitative data which was gathered as part of these trials is the impact it had on those who were carrying responsibilities at home. So whether that was parents of children or people caring for elders and beyond and so on. I think many of these people found that that small reduction in working time just made their days, on the one hand, a lot easier to organize and arrange and get between work and my responsibilities, but also, for instance, the parents of children had a chance to spend some quality time with them.

“Whether that was before work, dropping off at school or seeing when one side finished and being able to spend time in the evening with them. And what’s really interesting, I think, is the knock on effects is hard for people, even beyond those who are directly involved in the in the trial of shorter working hours. So, for instance, in quite a few of these interviews, people say how, you know, actually, it led to grandparents being able to spend more time with children because it facilitated the chance for them to be dropped off, for instance. … So you saw a radiating effect of shorter working hours beyond just the immediate participants.”

On what we learn from Iceland’s four day work week

Alex Pang: “What I’ve learned is that this is something that lots of companies can do. It’s not just like creative workers and companies where you have really kind of long project times. It’s also restaurants, it’s garages. There’s a nursing home in Virginia that moved its certified nurses assistants to sort of a 30 hour work week and saw terrific results. So, you know, the first thing is it’s not just white collar workers, it’s blue collar workers. It’s really everybody. I think the other thing is that, to paraphrase William Gibson, the four day week is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.

“Studies of overwork, multitasking of time, lost in meetings tell us that companies lose something like two or three hours of productive time every single day. And so if you can get a handle on those things right, you go a long way to being able to do five days worth of work in four days. And so companies find that by dealing with meetings, by using technology better, by setting aside time for deep focused work, that’s how they’re able to make a lot of progress toward implementing successfully a 32-hour week without cutting salaries and without sacrificing productivity or customer service.”

From The Reading List

Open Democracy: “The time for a four-day week has arrived” — “Over the past six years, Iceland has been quietly conducting a major economic experiment. More than 2,500 public sector employees – representing over 1% of the country’s entire working population – reduced their working hours from 40 hours per week to 35 or 36 hours, with no loss of pay.”

The Atlantic: “Kill The 5-Day Workweek” — “The 89 people who work at Buffer, a company that makes social-media management tools, are used to having an unconventional employer. Everyone’s salary, including the CEO’s, is public. All employees work remotely; their only office closed down six years ago. And as a perk, Buffer pays for any books employees want to buy for themselves.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.