Iceland Proves 4-Day Work Weeks Are Better. Where Do We Sign Up?

We know how much time is wasted at the office, and how short weekends feel. A trial of a shorter work week in Iceland offers the hope of relief from an outdated approach to our jobs.

When I was a college student doing a semester abroad, one of the perks of the program was a four-day week in the classroom. The extra day became an essential part of any plan to squeeze in as much travel across Europe as a three-day weekend would allow.

As life went on, and school turned to work, marriage, and kids, and my wife and I, no doubt like many of you, have often lamented the fact that a two-day weekend is just too short. Saturdays are often taken up by neglected chores, errand-running, and shopping. I’ve often felt on a Saturday evening that we’ve worked harder than during the week as we tried to cram it all in. And for the twenty years we’ve known each other, our Sundays have revolved primarily around going to church, and the attendant rituals and traditions that exist both before and after the main event. By the time Sunday dinner is on the table, you’re realizing that a new work week is only hours away, and the merry-go-round spins on.

“If I just had one extra day,” my wife would say, “it would be so much better. Then there’d be one actual day to rest without having to worry about being somewhere or doing something.”

As it turns out, the nation of Iceland has just proved my wife right.

Between 2015 and 2019, trials of a four-day work week were carried out, and it was an “overwhelming success.” From the BBC:

Productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces, researchers said.

A number of other trials are now being run across the world, including in Spain and by Unilever in New Zealand.

In Iceland, the trials run by Reykjavík City Council and the national government eventually included more than 2,500 workers, which amounts to about 1% of Iceland's working population.

A range of workplaces took part, including preschools, offices, social service providers, and hospitals.

Many of them moved from a 40 hour week to a 35 or 36 hour week, researchers from UK think tank Autonomy and the Association for Sustainable Democracy (Alda) in Iceland said.

The trials led unions to renegotiate working patterns, and now 86% of Iceland's workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay, or will gain the right to, the researchers said.

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.

I’m not an expert on historical labor practices, but I’m pretty confident that the kind of hours we put in at work are a) not ideal and b) are therefore almost certainly a consequence of necessity.

We work this much because we had to, for a very long time, and our collective sense of responsibility evolved as a cultural norm to match that need. But much like the idea that we need to go to college is being re-evaluated by an army of young men and women drowning in academic debt with no prospect of a good job, the way we work has been upended as a year of pandemic accommodations changed the way we approach the 9 to 5.

Is it time to re-evaluate the 5-day workweek? I say yes.


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As cited by Maria Popova of the always-thought-provoking Brain Pickings, the late German Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper addresses, in his book, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, the contrast between our tendency to workaholism and the need for true leisure:

The opposite of acedia is not the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living, but rather the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God — of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused by anyone [who has] any experience with the narrow activity of the “workaholic.”

[…]

Leisure, then, is a condition of the soul — (and we must firmly keep this assumption, since leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like “breaks,” “time off,” “weekend,” “vacation,” and so on — it is a condition of the soul) — leisure is precisely the counterpoise to the image for the “worker.”

[…]

Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as activity … there is leisure as “non-activity” — an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet.

[…]

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.

Pieper also points to the fact that even when we take time off, it is often intrinsically ordered to the benefit of our work:

Leisure stands opposed to the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as social function.

The simple “break” from work — the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer — is part and parcel of daily working life. It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule. The “break” is there for the sake of work. It is supposed to provide “new strength” for “new work,” as the word “refreshment” indicates: one is refreshed for work through being refreshed from work.

Leisure stands in a perpendicular position with respect to the working process… Leisure is not there for the sake of work, no matter how much new strength the one who resumes working may gain from it; leisure in our sense is not justified by providing bodily renewal or even mental refreshment to lend new vigor to further work… Nobody who wants leisure merely for the sake of “refreshment” will experience its authentic fruit, the deep refreshment that comes from a deep sleep.

I suspect that few of us, these days, with as many distractions as we have, are very good at engaging in real leisure at all. At least as Pieper describes it. We fill every moment of our days with sound and fury. Some nights, when the evenings aren’t too hot, I’ll grab a cigar and a bourbon and go sit by the back fence and watch the sunset, or look up at the stars, and try to just let my mind wander around and do its own thing.

I try not to pick up my phone.

I almost always fail.

As someone with externally-imposed expectations of what work is supposed to look like, I know I often conflate it with directly productive activities. Hours put in, number of units out. What do I have to show at the end of the day? How busy have I been? How much blood and sweat did I expend?

But as a writer, I also know this approach to work, though it haunts my own sense of responsibility, doesn’t fit. So much of the time that goes into good writing is, for lack of a better term, meandering.

What do I mean by “meandering”? Well, it’s all the articles I read from which I draw ideas. It’s the book I’m listening to that opens my eyes to a concept never considered. It’s the epiphany that hits me in the car as I take my wife out to breakfast because I know that I am floundering that morning, and if I sit at my desk I’ll just wind up wasting time on social media. It’s the time I allow myself to sit outside, looking up at the stars. Writing, along with other creative pursuits, is about pattern recognition. It comes as the fruit of consumption of information, the contemplation of that knowledge, and the way the lessons of experience shape your ideas about what it all means. If you don’t take the time to recharge each of those things, your work will suffer — even though the process of recharging often looks very little like work.

If you saw me, for example, playing a video game while listening to a book or a podcast about a topic I’m mulling, you might think I was just screwing around wasting time. If you walked by as I sat around reading, nowhere near my writing desk, you might ask when I was going to start my work day. I know you might ask these things because I ask them of myself. I often feel guilty about the seeming idleness of my process, even though I know it to be indispensable. It feels self-indulgent and phony.

But how many of us have a sense of how much real, concentrated effort we’re able to put in to producing our work product? How many of us, if we could only bill the hours that go into the final result, would ever make enough money to put food on the table? There’s a lot of fluff padding out our timesheets, even with all those hours at the office.

Jordan Peterson, who was a notorious workaholic before his recent illness knocked him on his back, recently offered an insight into his own discovery about finding the right balance in work:

A post shared by @jordan.b.peterson

Lest creatives be singled out and accused of asking for special treatment when it comes to working hours, I offer what is perhaps the most relatable scene from one of my favorite comedies, OfficeSpace. If you’re not familiar with the film, Peter Gibbons, who works in a soul-crushing cubicle farm updating lines of code to prevent software from crashing because of Y2K, (The movie came out in 1999), is our protagonist. After his occupational hypnotherapist dies of a heart attack in mid session, trying to help him through work-related stress, Gibbons remains in his hypnotically-induced, relaxed state of mind. This leads him to be brutally honest and apathetic about the expectations of others, and he becomes unafraid to take risks. In the clip below, he’s having a meeting with the “Bobs” — a pair of consultants brought in to evaluate and downsize the workforce at Gibbons’ employer, Initech:

How many of us who have worked in corporate environments have felt this way? How many of us build avoidance behaviors and filler into our routines as a matter of survival? How many of us can identify with being completely unmotivated, and “working just hard enough not to get fired”?

In another moment of the film, Gibbons blurts out to his friend and co-worker, “We don't have a lot of time on this earth. We weren't meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.”

How can anyone argue that this observation is false?

A four day week might not fix what ails us. But it could give us a bit more time to be with the people we love, to slow down, to breathe, to feel like human beings before we’re sucked back into the relentless cycle of work.

I wholeheartedly support the idea.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony that I’m writing this on a Friday.

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