As Iceland trials 'successful' four-day week - is this the future of work?

·7 min read

Watch: World's largest ever four day week trial in Iceland an 'overwhelming success'

Busy workers rejoice, trials of a four-day week in Iceland have been declared an "overwhelming success", prompting calls to test out a similar working practice in the UK. 

The world’s largest ever trial of a four-day working week took place between 2015 and 2019 and saw more than 1% of Iceland’s working population test out the pilot programme, which cut the working week to 35-36 hours with no reduction in overall pay.

Joint analysis by think tanks, Autonomy in the UK and the Association for Sustainable Democracy (Alda) in Iceland, found that the trials boosted productivity and wellbeing and are already leading to permanent changes.

Workers reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout, and said their health and work-life balance had improved. They also reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores.

Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy, said: "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."

Gudmundur Haraldsson, a researcher at Alda, said: "The Icelandic shorter working week journey tells us that not only is it possible to work less in modern times, but that progressive change is possible too."

The Icelandic trials improved productivity. (Getty Images)
The Icelandic trials improved productivity. (Getty Images)

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Spain is also testing out a pilot of a four day working week, and the results of the Icelandic trial have led to calls for the UK to follow suit.

Earlier this year 45 MPs from parties including Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the Green Party signed a motion calling on the government to set up a commission to examine the proposal.

While in May, a report commissioned by the 4 Day Week campaign from Platform London suggested that shorter hours could cut the UK's carbon footprint.

What are the benefits of a four-day working week?

While there has been some doubt cast about the measurable success of the Icelandic trial, experts believe moving to a more flexible work model could mean British workers are able to enjoy a better work-life balance leading to improved wellbeing and mental health.

Dr Elena Touoni, consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy says working fewer hours a week has many mental health benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety, and better sleep. 

"Our relationships are better because we have more time to spend with our friends, families and loved ones," she adds. "And we also have more time and energy to follow our interests and to nurture our creativity, which gives our lives meaning and purpose."

According to Craig Jackson, professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University many studies show that workforces do not get enough rest and leisure time when working hours (plus commuting) expand, indicating that work life-balance is more likely if we increase the rest days workers have.

"Working fewer days allows workers to focus their efforts into compressed working periods and have more 'down-time'," he explains.

"We talk lots about work-life balance but in my twenty years experience as a workplace psychologist, I rarely see any balance in those who work five days a week, but plenty in those who work fewer days."

Burnt out workers could benefit from a four-day week. (Getty Images)
Burnt out workers could benefit from a four-day week. (Getty Images)

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Professor Jackson says Victorian society used to base culture around 8 hours work, 8 hours rest and 8 hours sleep, but this may no longer suit modern life. 

"Due to increased technology and on-demand working, unpaid overtime, and the insidious creep of people taking work home with them, working hours have been increasing since the 1970s," he explains. 

But a four-day week could be a major step in reversing that trend and allowing workers to have more time to themselves and their families. 

"It also helps workers get access to healthcare when needed, which has been a barrier to some who work full time." 

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As well as improving the health and wellbeing of employees, a four-day week could have positive impacts on productivity.

Though you might think productivity would fall as a result of working fewer hours, in fact the reverse may be true.

Findings from research carried out on the four-day week by Henley Business School, discovered that of the UK businesses who have already adopted a four-day working week, nearly two-thirds (64%) reported improvements in staff productivity.

Having an extra day off could improve workers' wellbeing. (Getty Images)
Having an extra day off could improve workers' wellbeing. (Getty Images)

So why, when hours worked drop, can the quantity of our output go up? 

"Human productivity is not linear and we cannot work consistently over longer time periods without some flagging, fatigue or even reduction in performance quality," explains Professor Jackson. 

"In the UK we used to have half day closing (typically on Wednesday afternoons), which enabled staff to get a break from work mid-week and happened without defect to commerce or productivity." 

The chance to enjoy more down-time could also lead to employees making better decisions at work and less absenteeism. 

"The opportunity to slow down the pace of life with a longer weekend has personal and organisational benefit," explains Tracey Moggeridge, mindfulness practitioner at workplace psychology consultancy, Pearn Kandola. 

"Fewer rates of absenteeism, better decision-making, and a happier and healthier workforce".

Paul Gilbert, who developed the emotion regulation system, encourages us to spend more time in the zone of contentment, where we connect more positively toward others and feel more fulfilled. 

"These opportunities arise when we have more down-time, and give us a little mood-boost with a shot of oxytocin and those feel-good endorphins," Moggeridge explains. 

life edit
life edit

And getting a hit of serotonin during workers' increased time off can have wide-reaching impacts on workers' health which could lead to them needing fewer days off. 

"Serotonin - the chemical we need to support our immune system among a host of other things – is also believed to help regulate mood, social behaviour, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function," Moggeridge says. 

"Seratonin also comes from gentle exercise – and a four-day week would give us all more time for walking, yoga, thai-chi, or tugging out the weeds in the garden."

All this seems to suggest it makes perfect sense for the UK to explore a shorter working week, where possible of course. 

"I’ve been campaigning for the return of half day closing for about 10 years," Professor Jackson adds. "The ‘cost’ of closing workplaces and any lost revenue in doing this would be off-set by many benefits - reduced staff sickness, increased satisfaction, reduced staff turnover costs, cheaper running costs." 

Professor Jackson says the study in Iceland and others such as the trial running in Spain show that the view of “more working hours equals more productivity” needs to be re-assessed. 

"In the enlightened age of flexible employment, those companies who adopt 4 day weeks will have an advantage over those who stick to an outdated mode of staff deployment," he adds.

What would you do with your extra day off? (Getty Images)
What would you do with your extra day off? (Getty Images)

Of course, even if switching to a four-day week is deemed a step too far, there's an opportunity to explore other flexible ways of working. 

British company Stakester has recently implemented a 7-day flexi-working practice where employees don’t necessarily need to work a 9-5 Monday – Friday. Instead, they can choose when and where they want to work, either morning, afternoon or evening.

The company has chosen to opt for an outcome-driven model where everyone sets their own objectives for their role, so as long as they accomplish tasks within their own set deadlines, then there’s no need to confine them within standard working hours.

"We measure success based on outcomes only - no set working hours, days or place to work and all employees set their own deadlines," explains Tom Fairey, Stakester's CEO and co-founder. Fairey says being able to take advantage of different working hours and days has helped to increase productivity.

"Within a startup environment, it can be an especially busy and fast-paced one, and avoiding burnout is so important. Not having to worry about meeting someone else’s deadline or taking too much time off when stressed can ease the pressure we put on ourselves, helping our general wellbeing."

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