Over a year into the pandemic, the emperor stands naked when it comes to the reality of working life. Whether we have realized how many drawn-out Zoom meetings really could have been an email or how many cashiers were forced to risk infection to maintain coffee chains’ profits, the absurdities of work have become clearer than ever for many of us. This naturally leads to the question: Why is this pointless toil still eating up such a large chunk of our days?
Fortunately, in a growing number of countries, this question has become more than rhetorical. The prospect of shortened working hours, a long-standing demand for the Left, continues to inch closer to becoming a generally accepted political goal, thanks to years of mobilization and a growing pile of evidence on the benefits of working less.
In Iceland, the Reykjavik City Council, the trade union confederation BSRB, and the national government ran a series of trials of a four-day working week between 2015 and 2019 — the world’s largest experiment thus far in shortening working hours without slashing wages. In June 2021, researchers from UK think tank Autonomy and the Icelandic Association for Sustainability and Democracy released a report outlining their assessment of the trials. The result? An “overwhelming success” —measured by the well-being of workers as well as productivity levels.
The Icelandic trials were a direct response to campaigning pressures from trade unions and other grassroots organizations. Over 2,500 workers in the public sector (more than 1 percent of the country’s entire working population) moved from a forty-hour to thirty-five- or thirty-six-hour working weeks without any reductions in pay. The scale of the trial, combined with the variety of workplaces involved (including both nine-to-five workers and those on nonstandard shifts) means that the Icelandic experiment now provides some of the best data available on the prospect of shortening the working week.
It should come as no surprise that this data paints a positive picture. Workers reported experiencing better health and less stress and burnout, and they had more time to spend with their families or on leisure activities. Productivity and service provision either remained at similar levels or improved in the majority of workplaces.
With Iceland’s unions playing a key role every step of the way, they wasted no time in building on the trial’s success to negotiate shortened working hours on a permanent basis. Thanks to a series of successfully negotiated contracts in 2019–2021, 86 percent of Iceland’s working population has either already moved to shortened working hours or gained the right to negotiate such reductions in the future.
Iceland thus joins some of its Nordic neighbors in providing clear evidence for the benefits of reducing working hours. As a stronghold for social democracy, this idea has enjoyed a greater level of political acceptability in the Nordic countries than what might be found elsewhere. Last year, Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, set up a working group to propose specific measures to reduce working hours in the country, twenty years after Finland’s own set of trials for a six-hour work day in the 1990s. Sweden also ran trials for a six-hour day for retirement-home workers in 2015. Both experiments yielded similar results as in Iceland: happier and healthier workers and little to no reduction in how much actually got done at the end of day.
And yet this isn’t a story of Nordic exceptionalism. Particularly in the context of the pandemic, other countries around the world have also started to dip their toes into the water. In fall 2021, Spain will follow suit with its own pilot of a four-day week, providing financial aid to companies that cut the working week to thirty-two hours without reducing wages. It is currently set to include over six thousand workers. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has also suggested a four-day week to aid economic recovery post-pandemic, with several firms following suit by offering staff four-day weeks without cutting pay. Even in Japan, where chronic overtime is such a pervasive issue that “death by overwork” has its own word, the government has recommended that companies allow their staff to opt for a four-day week.
What Works, for Less Work?
What do these trials have in common? They showcase two necessary conditions for their success: large-scale financial backing (often by the government) as well as the need to involve unions as central actors. Alongside the success stories, there are also many examples of trials with more mixed results, especially those carried out in individual companies without government backing.
Indeed, employers ultimately have little incentive to take on the immediate costs of reducing working hours while keeping wages the same. It takes financial compensation to convince them to not only effectively pay a higher hourly wage, but also to cut down on the amount of hours in a day when they can claim control of workers. Historically, this pushback has been constant throughout the labor movement’s fights to go from sixteen- to twelve- to ten- to eight-hour workdays. The emergence of increasingly dystopian surveillance tools used by employers to monitor their staff working from home during the pandemic shows how far employers are willing to go to retain control. It is, therefore, encouraging that ongoing trials appear to recognize the need for significant government financial backing to mitigate resistance from employers.
As the Icelandic example shows, the prevalence of these proposals in the Nordic countries is in no small part attributable to the relative institutional strength of trade unions in the region. This did not come about by accident. Rather, as in most places, labor organizations have long engaged in intense struggle to gain ground against the interests of capital, often despite violent pushback. Today, the Nordic region has the highest union density in the world (though it has fallen in recent years), enabling greater bargaining power by sheer strength of numbers to engage in collective negotiations with employers — still the main process through which reforms in labor policy occurs.
In Iceland, sustained efforts by the country’s trade union confederations transformed the trials into real change in the daily lives of workers. The new contracts negotiated by the confederations after the trials of 2015–19 didn’t just open the door for reduced working hours for all, they also made significant gains regarding pay and benefits in many sectors. In the trial assessment report, the leader of the Icelandic Nurses’ Association, Guðbjörg Pálsdóttir, called the negotiated contracts “the greatest progress we have seen in over forty years.”
It is worth mentioning that this progress was only extendable to such a large portion of workers thanks to high levels of union membership in Iceland: the contracts covered 170,200 union members from Iceland’s working population of around 197,000. These membership numbers may still appear as a pipe dream in many countries, including the United States and UK, where unions have suffered many decades of suppression. Boosting union membership thus appears to be a necessary first step in order to maximize the positive impact of reduced working hours.
Cutting working hours is no panacea for the absurdities or horrors of working life. As with other proposals that serve to mitigate capitalism, such as the push for a universal basic income, the implementation of such policies is fraught with potential pitfalls. One such immediate risk is the simple fact that employers are likely to encourage an intensification of work to compensate for their perceived lost productivity. Your six-hour workday may end up with a shorter lunch break, or you may be pressured to meet more demanding targets and deadlines before you start your weekend on Thursday afternoon. This is naturally counterproductive to the aims of such policies, particularly in terms of worker well-being.
In light of this risk, the common counterargument that reducing working hours does not need to lead to a reduction in productivity warrants some deconstruction. While this argument is often deemed necessary to ensure buy-in from employers, isn’t the fact that workers doing less work are happier and healthier a good enough reason in itself? The fact that, even during a pandemic, avoiding burnout and back injuries for nurses is not seen as a sufficiently politically desirable aim shows how far we still have to go to dismantle the neoliberal sacralization of work.
The good news is that the project of reducing working hours can have a positive normative effect — particularly if coupled with other measures to mitigate the harms of working life. It can help build a platform for further organizing and reinvigorate optimism that pushing back against bosses’ control is worth the effort. The admission that we would indeed be better off spending less time at work inherently disrupts the idea that work is valuable for its own sake. Additionally, the Icelandic trials offer evidence that, as long as initiatives to reduce working hours are led with the aim of actually working less, not just faster, they can still offer concrete benefits: efforts were made to shorten meetings, rearrange shifts, and cut tasks so that no one worker was charged with an intensified workload.
In her 2021 book Lost in Work, Amelia Horgan argues that, just as work harms us in a multitude of ways, opportunities for resistance are also legion. She emphasizes that there is no one clear prescription for the problem of capitalist work. While Horgan is “most sympathetic” to solutions that center around transformations of ownership, “a hybrid combination of tactics might prove useful, not just for winning power or demands but for the process of denaturalising work” — making visible that there is nothing natural or unchangeable about the way we work under capitalism. Simply doing less of it can certainly present one such tactic.
For this reason, as the push to “go back to normal” grows stronger around the world, it is important to build on the momentum from trials exploring reduced working hours to wrestle back control of our days.