One change at work could boost your health and productivity

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Forget the A.I. take over — some jobs have already replaced human workers with technology. Yet somehow, many are working longer hours now than in previous years. For anyone who has asked why we seem to work so much despite so having so much tech that can do the work […]

Forget the A.I. take over — some jobs have already replaced human workers with technology. Yet somehow, many are working longer hours now than in previous years.

For anyone who has asked why we seem to work so much despite so having so much tech that can do the work for us, this counterintuitive workplace experiment might help explain.

Across two trials, the City of Reykjavik and the Icelandic Government found reducing hours spent working — colloquially known as the “four-day week” — improved worker’s wellbeing and work-life balance. Despite the hours cut, productivity stayed the same or increased.

The trials started at six workplaces before growing to 100 — eventually including over 2,500 people. Now, 86 percent of Iceland’s workers have reduced their hours or have the right to do so.

SCIENCE IN ACTION — A study evaluating this countrywide experiment was published by the independent think tank Autonomy in June.

After a labor union called BSRB and other grassroots organizations campaigned to reduce work hours, the Reykjavík City Council decided to begin a trial of shorter workweeks in 2014.

They started with their Child Protective Service and what they call a “service center” — where people might go for benefits and social services for people with disabilities, elderly people, and children. Because of promising early results, they expanded to other workplaces. Hours would be reduced, and compensation would, crucially, stay the same for all staff involved.

In 2017, the Icelandic national government started doing the same and selected four workplaces, including their Directorate of Immigration and a police station. All the workplaces had to have mostly union members working there and 70 to 100 percent of employees working full time.

In both situations, hours were cut up to four hours (and most cut fewer than four) which doesn’t quite constitute a four-day workweek but it comes close. In many cases, Fridays were shortened. But other methods of cutting hours were employed, including:

  • Starting later and ending earlier
  • Choosing different days of the week to shorten
  • Staggered shortened hours

The trials both lasted four years. Subsequent surveys and interviews suggest:

  • People did end up working fewer hours.
  • Workers reconfigured some work practices and used their working hours more efficiently.
  • Workplaces (who had to submit markers for productivity) reported the same, if not better “service provision.” For example, police investigators closed more cases than before the trial.
  • Offices, schools, and outdoor workplaces increased their “wellbeing” and had fewer symptoms of stress.
  • Participants reported it was easier to do errands.
  • Males in heterosexual relationships reported sharing more of the housework.
  • Single parents reported more time spent with children.
  • People reported less stress at home, more time to spend with family, and more exercise.
  • Morale at work improved, and shorter hours attracted more job applicants.

In most cases, these changes to work were made permanent. Unions across the country were able to get reduced working hours or the right to shorten them for 86 percent of Iceland’s working population (to keep it in perspective, Iceland’s entire population is smaller than that of Tulsa, Oklahoma). As one participant quoted in the report put it, “I work less … For me it is like a gift from the heavens. And I like it a lot.”

HOW THIS AFFECTS LONGEVITY — Iceland’s trials weren’t the first to show that shorter work hours can lead to less fatigue and more work done per hour. A number of smaller-scale studies have also found adjusted hours have helped workers feel more in control, less mental fatigue, better sleep, and fewer health complaints.

The Iceland report suggested that the surprising effects on well-being and productivity had to do with something called “psychological detachment.”

Adjusted hours have helped workers feel more in control and less mental fatigue.Getty Images

This jibes with a 2008 study which asked, via weekly surveys, how engaged workers in Germany felt at work and how “detached” they felt from work during off-hours. Those that reported feeling the most engaged at work and the most detached outside of work hours also had the most ‘positive affect’ at the end of the week — they felt more excited, alert, inspired, and active.

This suggests that if you can fully disengage from work, you’ll have more high-quality hours on the job the next day.

Stress and burnout have been shown to factor into long-term health outcomes. Chronic stress can actually alter your brain, weaken your immune system, and even affect certain white blood cells in the blood.

Burnout — which the World Health Organization describes as chronic unmanaged workplace stress — can also increase the risk for depression and anxiety. It can spur musculoskeletal disorders among women and cardiovascular problems in men. With more perceived stress in our lives, we’re more likely to die.

WHY IT’S A HACK — The premise of these trials is counterintuitive: less work led to more productivity?

Iceland’s experiment suggests this isn’t unrealistic. It also calls into question the rest of the world’s relationship with work. The U.S. has a notorious workaholics culture: with no minimum annual leave, no parental leave, and more hours worked per year than Japan, Canada, and the U.K. And while we can’t just stroll up to a manager and ask for a shorter week with the same pay, taking a good look at our own work and life priorities couldn’t hurt.

After cutting hours, people in Iceland reported morale at work improved, and shorter hours attracted more job applicants.Getty Images

If you left vacation time on the table? Take it. Answering calls long after work hours? Set your phone to ‘do not disturb.’ Having meetings about meetings? See what you can turn into an email instead.

While some strategies are easier said than done, sometimes it just takes a little creative thinking to approach a problem in a new way. In the trials, for example, people re-prioritized their tasks, took shorter coffee breaks, delegated more efficiently, and put limits on when meetings took place and for how long.

Work-places also ran things smarter, not harder, depending on specific workplace needs: For example, some schools staggered lunch for students, which meant fewer teachers had to supervise at one time. Employees could choose what day they wanted to be shortened. Others alternated weeks with shorter hours.

If there’s a means of bringing new ideas about workplace hours to management, it’s worth trying — especially with new evidence from Iceland that fewer hours can be just as effective.

HACK SCORE OUT OF 10 — 💻⛏️💻⛏ (4/10)

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