Thanks to Iceland, the four-day workweek is coming

A new study from Iceland confirms that a shorter workweek improves productivity.

Thanks to Iceland, the four-day workweek is coming
Photo by fauxels from Pexels
  • A study in Icelandic government offices again shows the benefits of a shorter workweek.
  • Productivity rose enough to ensure that all services were still provided as needed.
  • Because of the study's success, 86 percent of Icelanders now or soon will have the right to a shorter workweek.

In 1886, the standard workweek in the United States consisted of six, ten-hour days. On May 4th of that year, a riot took place in Chicago after an unknown person threw a bomb at officers trying to break up a peaceful rally in favor of the then-radical notion of an eight-hour work day. While it took a few more decades to get there, today, the eight-hour workday seems quite natural.

Today, the discussion centers around the possibility of a further cut in the workweek, from five days to four days. Joining the pile of studies on this topic is a new report out of Iceland documenting the recent success of one of the largest experiments to date on a reduced workweek. Carried out by the Icelandic government and published by Autonomy, a UK think tank, the report suggests that a substantial portion of the economy could switch over to a short workweek tomorrow with little in the way of negative effects.

An experiment in Iceland

Icelandic workers spend more hours per year in the office than do those of several other European nations and can be less productive during that time than some of those other workers. The experiment was designed in hopes of meeting the work-life balance of Icelanders, improving productivity in the workplace, and providing a route for bringing hours in line with their neighbors.

The first of the trials was carried out by Reykjavík's city government between 2014 and 2019 at a few government offices and service centers. The trials eventually expanded to include more than 2,500 workers at "playschools, city maintenance facilities, care-homes for people with various disabilities and special-needs, and beyond."

Workers in the experimental locations saw their hours reduced from 40 to 36 or 35 hours per week with no loss in pay. The exact way these hours were organized was determined by the individual workplace involved. Many opted to split the hours among four days, while others worked a five-day week with one workday being shorter.

A second trial was carried out by the Icelandic national government at about the same time, starting in 2017 and ending in 2021. This involved 17 workplaces across the country.

Iceland, home of the four-day workweek

Both studies produced similar results. The reduction in hours caused either no change or an increase in productivity and improvements in the reported work-life balance of employees. While many employees were concerned that more work would be crammed into less time, the data show that the workers were actually working less.

Improvements in efficiency were found in every workplace. Employees worked faster. Time-wasting events, like unnecessary meetings, were curtailed. Routines were changed to be more efficient, and shifts and schedules were restructured. Overtime was needed in some offices, but only sparingly.

Importantly, services were provided at the same levels as they were before the reduction in work hours. The well-being of workers dramatically improved, with many reporting increased time with their families, lower stress levels, and a better ability to balance their work and home lives.

The two trials included more than 1 percent of Iceland's workforce. Thanks to its success, 86 percent of Icelandic workers are on contracts that either reduce their workweek or grant them the right to reduce their workweek in the future.

Work smarter, not harder

The idea of a four-day workweek or reduced hours with no cut in pay is being discussed and tested in many places. The six-hour day has been tried in Sweden to great fanfare. Offices in New Zealand saw dramatic gains in productivity after switching to a shorter week. Microsoft tried a four-day week in Japan and got similar results.

Indeed, the results from Iceland are typical. Anna Coote, principal fellow at the New Economics Foundation, explained in an email to BigThink how the report was well in line with previous studies:

"It confirms other evidence that reduced working time is popular with employees, provided there is no loss of pay. It also confirms the importance of combating low pay at the same time as moving towards shorter working hours. A four-day week (or its equivalent in hours) must benefit lower income groups, not just those on higher pay. No one should have to work long hours just to keep a roof over their head and food on the table."

A four-day workweek is coming

In the book The Case for a Four Day Week, Coote and her co-authors examine the impact of a four-day workweek on society. They foresee a number of changes for society at large.

For example, it is still the case that women do more housework than men. However, the Iceland experiments showed that men in the study performed a larger share of household duties due to spending less time at the office. A four-day week could also benefit the environment through wasting less energy and fewer commutes.

In an email to Big Think, Coote reminds us that a "new normal" may be coming:

"What is 'normal' is not natural or heaven sent — it is constructed over time by human-made structures and systems. Yesterday's 'normal' was a 10-hour day. Working people won the right to an eight hour day through a protracted struggle over many years of social and economic change. Tomorrow's 'normal' is likely to be a 4-day week or its equivalent in hours across a week, month, year or lifetime."

If the four-day workweek indeed becomes the norm, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Iceland.

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Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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