Why a decrease in work hours can boost both well-being and productivity: Jennifer Moss

Happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss looks at the recent study from Iceland that says a shortened work week benefited employee well-being and increased productivity.

'The way we're currently working is just not sustainable,' Moss writes

A four-year study out of Iceland showed people's well-being and production rose when they worked fewer hours. Happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss writes that the way people are currently working is just not sustainable and is causing serious negative impacts to well-being. (Shutterstock/George Rudy)

In 2020, during the pandemic, workloads increased sharply.

Several research studies showed that we'd added two, sometimes three, hours to our workday.

But in Iceland, the story is vastly different. After testing a 35-hour workweek, they've concluded, it's not just better for well-being — it's making employees more productive. 

With overwork a leading cause of burnout, it's incredible that during a year of such massive stress, we've worked longer hours than ever before in history. And, it's a real problem with serious consequences.

According to Gallup's report, Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures, "employees who strongly agree that they always have too much to do are more than twice as likely to experience burnout very often or always at work."

The International Labour Organization reported in May that excessively long working hours contribute to the deaths of 2.8 million workers every year.

Canadians put in 200-plus more hours at work each year than their Swedish counterparts. Yet people in Sweden enjoy a 20 per cent higher GDP (gross domestic product) per capita than Canadians. 

This is why we're starting to see experiments like the one in Iceland garnering attention. The way we're currently working is just not sustainable and is causing serious negative impacts to our well-being. 

Why less is more

Iceland's four-year experiment with shorter work weeks across 2,500 public sector employees shows improvement in quality of working life and in work-life balance. There was no reduction in pay with the shorter work week of 35 to 36 hours, and employees were either just as productive or more. 

Evidence for this was found by tracking various government services. For example, government call centres showed 93 per cent of calls answered despite shorter shifts, versus 85 per cent at a "control" workplace.

At the Department of Accountancy there was a 6.5 per cent increase in invoices entered. For police, average cases closed per month climbed from 7.8 before the study to 8.8 during the project. At the immigration registry office, the time to process applications fell from six days to two.

And the Iceland experiment is only just bolstering earlier research. 

In 2019, productivity rose about 40 per cent during Microsoft Japan's experiment with a four-day work week. Perpetual Guardian, a financial services firm based out of New Zealand found gains of 20 per cent productivity in their trial and has now instituted the shorter work week permanently. 

Zorra Township, near London, Ont., is the largest trial in Canada. It started in September 2020 and so far the results are promising

While a reduced work week might not have people looking like the models in this stock photo of happy people at work, it can improve a person's experience of work which just adds more happiness to all areas of their lives, Moss writes. (wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Can't take every Friday off

To make this experiment work for all roles and sectors, we need to determine if we should reduce hours versus days worked. Even advocates of a four-day work week acknowledge that the design isn't suited to certain jobs in, for instance, construction and computer programming that require intense concentration. In those jobs, productivity falls off during the longer shifts. 

The Perpetual Guardian example solved this by changing its work model in order to give every worker a day off a week. They were paid for 37.5 hours, but only worked an average of 30 hours weekly. 

The CEO cites customer service for example as a role that can't just be off every Friday — so instead it was about giving staff more flexibility in how and when they worked. This resulted in staff taking different days off between Monday and Friday which was determined by factors like parents versus non-parents, structure of the teams, etc. 

Worth the investment?

One trial in Sweden, where there was a reduction of six hours each week, meant the hiring of more resources at an annual cost of $738,000. Covering healthcare workers during Iceland's trials added a combined cost of $30 million to their government budget. 

But, the tradeoffs to adding resources are offset by other ancillary benefits that some may not even realize. Take the environment and climate change for example — one global think tank forecasts a 21.3 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2025 if a four-day week was adopted now. It can also lead to a decrease in traffic congestion. Plus, the cost of daycare could go down. 

Despite the risk of potentially adding more resources, the research consistently points to more pros than cons. Following the trials' success, 86 per cent of Iceland's entire working population have now adopted shorter working hours. Obviously, they see it as worth the investment. 

Where employers can start

The research really emphasizes how much time we waste at work, so the key lesson here is changing the areas where we waste the most time:

  • Work meetings need to be shortened (one office banned meetings after 3 p.m.).
  • Make sure everyone knows what their number one priority is. Stop working on urgent versus priority needs. 
  • Focus on strengths. Ensure employees are optimally leveraging their assets and skills. For example, physicians are burning out at record rates; a big reason is the added time spent updating electronic health records. Physicians are experts in medicine, not data administration. Issues like this are costly.
  • Check in frequently but don't micromanage. Make sure employees aren't getting bogged down in the minutiae like overreporting.

Not only do simple tactics like these make it easier to reduce work hours, it improves our experience of work, which just adds more happiness to all areas of our lives. 


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.


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