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Iceland Tests Shorter Workweeks On A National Scale


When the five-day, 40-hour workweek became the legal standard under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. was a very different place. For one thing, far fewer women worked outside the home. And on nights and weekends, work stayed at work because no one had laptops or smartphones.

CHARLOTTE LOCKHART: Family holidays could be anywhere. That didn't need to be dependent upon whether there was Wi-Fi.


That is Charlotte Lockhart. She runs 4 Day Week Global, a community of people and companies who believe in shorter workweeks. She is pretty excited about a labor study out of Iceland. They ran a handful of trials involving more than 1% of the country's workforce where folks worked less than 40 hours per week for the same pay.

ALEX SOOJUNG-KIM PANG: This was one of the world's biggest trials of a shorter workweek.

KELLY: Alex Pang wrote a book called "Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, And Less." He says Iceland's project was uniquely thorough.

PANG: They spent an awful lot of time planning out this transition - discussions between managers, employees, union reps, shop stewards, et cetera, in every office, hospital department, fire station.

CORNISH: And that planning paid off. Even with fewer hours, productivity didn't budge. In some cases, it increased. And now that the study is over, 86% of Iceland's workforce either works a shorter week or has the option to do so.

KELLY: Two groups that advocated for four-day weeks published the results in English. Study author Jack Kellam from Autonomy says companies have a variety of strategies for making shorter weeks work.

JACK KELLAM: Shortening or canceling sort of meetings that were unnecessary, moving things towards email, organizational change around shift work.

CORNISH: Sonja Thorbergsdottir heads one of the workers groups that participated in the project.

SONJA THORBERGSDOTTIR: The biggest findings were that mental and physical stress decreases. We see less symptoms of burnout.

CORNISH: Thorbergsdottir says the study found that Icelanders decided to use the extra time in all kinds of ways.

THORBERGSDOTTIR: ...Taking up hobbies that they kind of had forgot. So in Iceland, I think people are quite outdoorsy - climbing a mountain or we have heated swimming pools here in Iceland, which is necessary when the weather is the way that it is.

KELLY: Charlotte Lockhart, of 4 Day Week Global, used to run her own company, which had - yes, you guessed it - four-day workweeks. She suggests employers can view shorter weeks like a benefit. Instead of offering gym memberships or childcare perks, they can just give employees time back, let them decide how to use it.

LOCKHART: Time is a currency that they will spend in the way that most suits them. Because you can give me all the gym memberships you like, I'm not going to the gym, and I don't value that, right?

CORNISH: Mary Louise, I guess we'll start with mountain climbing.

KELLY: No, I'm thinking sleep, Audie (laughter) - 100% in camp sleep.


Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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