Shortened Workweek Is Common in Iceland

Global HR

​As VR, an office workers’ union in Iceland, approached the date for its regular collective bargaining agreements in 2018, the leaders surveyed union members to see what the focus of the negotiations should be. 

“One thing that was very clear from our members was the shortening of the working week,” said Bryndís Guðnadóttir, the head of the collective agreement department at VR in Reykjavik, Iceland.

VR, which was founded in 1891 by wage earners to improve the rights of its members, wasn’t the only workplace in Iceland where employees were calling for shorter workweeks. Trial runs of shortened workweeks have grown to the point where most of Iceland’s employees now work abbreviated schedules.

Union-Backed Initiatives

The concept of a shorter workweek had been percolating for a few years in Icelandic society. In 2014, the city council of Reykjavik decided to launch a series of trials to test out a shortened workweek. Those trials launched in 2015. 

 ”[The shorter workweek] was pushed by unions, who recognized that overwork was a particularly significant problem in Iceland, particularly compared to some of its close neighbors in Scandinavia,” said Jack Kellam, a researcher at Autonomy in Cambridge, U.K., who co-authored a report on the shortening of the workweek in Iceland.

During the trials, most workplaces shortened their hours from 40 hours per week to 36 or 35 hours, making it a four-and-a-half-day workweek. Despite some trepidation from both employers and workers, the results were generally positive.

“We saw that it didn’t change the level of service; it was the same or even more productivity. There was no increase in work overtime,” said Lóa Birna Birgisdóttir, human resources manager for the City of Reykjavik. “There was a clear increase in job satisfaction, and fewer sick days.”

VR paid attention to these trials and how they played out. “We came to all the results we could find and in all those trials, we did not find out that there was less work or that the productivity was any less,” Guðnadóttir said. With the data from the government trials and the encouragement of the union members, VR was able to enter its collective bargaining in 2018 with a clear goal: to shorten the workweek for union members. For VR, that led to a workweek that was 45 minutes shorter. 

“It’s not a lot. But as soon as you are able to leave three hours earlier every fourth Friday, that makes a lot of difference,” Guðnadóttir said. “Being able to, for example, once a month leave almost half a day earlier, or come half a day later to work, that makes a difference.”

The results of the trials consistently showed an increase in health and well-being. How to arrange the shorter workweek was often done in consultation with the employers and employees, which also contributed to the success of the trials.

Widespread Changes Throughout Iceland

The change has been adopted widely throughout Iceland.

“We have a situation where 86 percent of Iceland’s working population [can] … opt into a reduction of the working week, should they choose, without any loss in salary,” Kellam said.

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul. 

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

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