The radical notion of a 4-day workweek

In a major study out of Iceland, workers who switched to a four-day week, at the same pay, were, not surprisingly, happier. They were also just as productive, sometimes more so.

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A restaurant worker in Los Angeles, California.

Restaurant workers are a large share of the millions of workers who are quitting jobs since the pandemic, One way for businesses to attract and keep workers is a shorter workweek, like the 4-day week that proved successful in Iceland, the editorial board writes.

Frederic J. Brown/Getty

It’s a radical idea that new research shows employers might do well to consider as a solution to their current hiring woes: Offer a shorter workweek at the same rate of pay.

That sounds illogical, of course, especially to a business that’s struggling to stay afloat and recover from the pandemic. But consider these results from a new study that examined the results when a shorter workweek was instituted for more than 2,500 public sector employees in Iceland.

That study — the largest yet on the potential benefits of a shorter workweek — involved workers who participated in trials, between 2015 and 2019, of a four-day, 35- to 36-hour workweek.



Workers were happier, which is no surprise given the shorter hours at the same pay. Their reported well-being “dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance,” the study found.

As one worker said, “This [reduction in hours] shows increased respect for the individual. That we are not just machines that just work . . . all day. Then sleep and get back to work. We are persons with desires and private lives, families and hobbies.”

But surprisingly, researchers also found that productivity “remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces,” according to the study by Autonomy, a think tank in the United Kingdom, and Iceland’s Association for Sustainable Democracy, known as Alda.

As one manager told researchers, “This was difficult at first, but with changes to our ways of working. the cut in hours succeeded.”

In short, both sides benefitted.

The results proved so successful that now, 86% of all Icelandic workers, both public and private, have either switched to a four-day workweek or have the right to shorten their hours.

The COVID exodus

We’re taking note of this research, even though America is surely not Iceland, because of the undeniable and dramatic shift occurring in the American workplace since COVID-19. Record numbers of workers are quitting their jobs — 4 million in April alone, the largest one-month count ever.

Some workers are fed up with low-wage work and long hours, as in the restaurant industry. Some aren’t willing to return to the daily grind at the office or are burned out from remote work and Zoom sessions. Some are just chucking an unsatisfying career and searching for a new, more fulfilling one.

In any case, employers will have to lure and keep highly qualified workers. And to do so, they would do well to “reimagine” a workplace that doesn’t rely on the traditional work schedule that’s been in place for eight decades.

“We pretty much just default to the standard eight hours a day, five days a week,” as Robert Bruno, a labor expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told us. Instead, he notes, the real question employers ought to be asking is, how much work time is required for an employee to earn their salary?

“In all likelihood, it’s not eight hours and four days,” Bruno says. “There is plenty of research that shows that it’s really not the hours or days. It’s the quality of engagement in the job.”

What Iceland learned

In Iceland, shorter workweek trials were the result of a push by trade unions and civil society organizations. Here in the United States, labor unions made a similar push decades ago that failed.

In April 1933, a labor-backed bill that would have instituted a five-day, 30-hour workweek nationwide passed the Senate. It was meant to increase employment as the nation was emerging from the Great Depression and make it easier to maintain full employment down the road.

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But President Franklin D. Roosevelt, facing pressure from business interests, dropped his support, and the bill failed in the House. Instead, Roosevelt pushed for, and got, massive New Deal spending on jobs and the 40-hour workweek, which became law in 1938.

Americans are not lazy, no matter what you may hear from politicians who are convinced that anyone who’s not working is just a bum living the high life on unemployment.

No, we’re used to working long hours, with far less vacation time than other developed nations. The European Union requires member countries to provide 24 days of vacation a year, while the average American gets by with just 10 days.

After 83 years of 9-to-5, five days a week, maybe it’s time to think about how to work smarter — by working shorter.

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