A Shorter Work Week

BSRB, the largest federation of public sector workers in Iceland, has campaigned for a more family friendly work environment for years. Historically, Icelanders have worked longer hours than the nations that we normally compare us with. Therefore, they have had less time to spend with their families and on leisure and hobbies. A shorter work week has been one of the federation’s key objectives since the year 2004 and this goal was finally reached in the collective agreements of 2020 when the federation successfully negotiated for a substantial reduction in the number of working hours without any reduction in wages.

It was no coincidence that a shorter work week was prioritized in the collective wage negotiations. Research and case studies confirm that a shorter work week leads to more job satisfaction, increased staff performance, better services and increases gender equality. Both health and the general wellbeing of the workers improve with a shorter work week, as does the safety of both employees and the users of the services they provide.

With a shorter work week the employees can spend more time with their families and the balance between private and professional life improves when working hours are better organized. The work environment improves and days of absence are reduced. Simultaneously the turn-over rate of employees is decreased and the shorter hours make it easier to recruit new employees in a more competitive work environment.

A shorter work week

  • Shorter work week for day workers

    Shorter work week for day workers

    As part of the wage agreements of 2020 it was agreed that the work week would be shortened by a maximum of four hours for day workers. The next steps were discussions at each individual governmental and local governmental workplace on how to put this into practice and how to get the same productivity with less hours in a reorganized work environment. After this process the employees of each workplace voted for the proposals that came out of these discussions and submitted the planned changes to the state and/or local government.

    The shorter work week took effect on January 1st, 2021, for daytime employees. The implementation was a success, with most governmental and local governmental workplaces agreeing on the maximum allowed cut in hours. The work week changed from 40 hours down to 36 for most public employees. As expected, when broad-reaching changes are implemented, there were teething troubles reported at some workplaces. A centralized steering group delt with those issues, assisting and advising workplaces on how to solve the problems in the implementation phase.

  • Shorter work week for shift workers

    Shorter work week for shift workers

    The implementation of a shorter work week for shift workers needed more preparation and therefore, as stipulated in the collective wage agreement, the shorter work hours would come to an effect for shift workers on May 1st, 2021. For shift workers the agreement stipulated that the work week would be shortened by a minimum of four hours, and even more than that for those that worked the most demanding shifts. Consequently, the work week has been cut by a total of eight hours, from 40 hours to 32 hours, for those employees that work the toughest shifts.

    When implementing the changes for shift workers it was clear that both the shift schedules and the method used to calculate the wages needed to change. It was clearly stipulated in the negotiated agreement that these changes should not negatively affect the wages.

    When these changes came into an effect for shift workers they created a gap in the coverage of shifts known as an employment gap. The gap was filled in two ways. Firstly, part time workers had the chance to increase the work percentage, in effect working the same number of hours but increasing their wages, often considerably. Secondly, new personnel was hired so that the shift plans worked despite the shorter work week. It was known from the beginning that the changes for shift workers would be costly and that cost was estimated in the cost benefit analysis of employers before the collective agreements were signed.

  • The background – how it all started

    The background – how it all started

    The shortening of the work week negotiated in the collective agreements of BSRB on behalf of the affiliated unions in the year 2020 are the greatest changes of working hours since the agreement of a 40-hour work week half a century ago. These kinds of changes don’t come through easily. It took a lot of hard work, lobbying and struggles to get the changes through the system. Like many other ideas it originally came from the grassroot of the federation and soon became the top priority for union members.

    To push this issue forward the federation exerted its influence to instigate two pilot projects that would allow measurements to be taken on the effect of a shorter work week in Iceland. The pilot project agreed upon by BSRB and the city of Reykjavik started in year 2015 and lasted until 2019. The pilot project agreed upon by BRSB and the State was launched in April 2017 and lasted until the shortening took effect according to the relevant clauses in the collective agreements signed in 2020.

    In a wage survey done by BSRB it was clear that a considerable number of union members wanted to work fewer hours than they did. They felt that their work had a negative effect on family life and that they experienced exhaustion and too much stress. This led to more sick days, more long-term absence due to stress related illnesses that prevented many employees from returning to work. In short, it was essential to find some ways to reduce the number of working hours to improve the employee’s quality of life.

  • The Reykjavik City pilot project

    The Reykjavik City pilot project

    The first pilot project was started by the city of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, in the year 2015. In the first year, two workplaces participated with a slightly different approach. A local service center closed an hour earlier each day, while the Child Protection Services closed after lunch on Fridays.

    The outcome of the first year was very positive, measurements taken showed significantly improved conditions, increased job satisfaction and fewer sick days. It showed no changes in the efficiency of the staff, although overtime increased slightly at the Child Protection Services due to on-call services.

    Since the pilot project was off to a good start the steering group suggested that the experiment would continue at these two workplaces to measure the long-term effects of the changes. They also proposed to increase the number of workplaces in the pilot project and to join forces with the academia to get further research done on the effect on households and family life.

    As a result of this the city council of Reykjavik decided to continue with this experiment for another year and to add more workplaces. For the second year of the experiment six institutions with eleven workstations and around 300 employees participated.

    In November 2017 the city council decided to extend the project by offering all workplaces in the city a chance to participate in the pilot project. This second phase of the experiment started in February 2018 and a large number of workplaces applied to participate. The terms were clear; each workplace had to submit a plan on how the changes should be implemented at that particular workplace. In the end around 2.200 employees, about a quarter of the 8.500 of the city’s workforce participated in the project.

    At a seminar held in February 2018 the main outcome of the first phase of the pilot project was presented by the chair of the steering group. The results were positive, showing that job satisfaction had increased, and short-term illnesses had decreased. As expected with such radical changes there were some minor deviations but both productivity and the quality of service remained the same despite fewer working hours.

    The final report of the first phase was published in April 2018 and showed that the overall outcome of the pilot project was very positive. The conclusions of a survey conducted among the employees showed positive signs though the answers varied depending on the workplaces. The measurement showed that symptoms related to mental and physical wellbeing or stress had dropped and in general there was a measured increase in job satisfaction at all workplaces. The overall benefits were greater than anyone had expected at the start of the project.

    Conclusions

    The main conclusions from the pilot project as well as the surveys conducted by the city can be found in a final report published in June 2019. In short, all research conducted showed a positive effect of the shorter work week.

    The research found that working fewer hours each week made it easier for families with children to combine work and private life. Stress was reduced both at work and at home and the employees could spend more quality time with their families. The employees felt better mentally and physically and had more energy to participate in social activities and exercise. Moreover, it seemed that men in particular participated more in household chores and the daily activities of their children.

    In general, the job satisfaction of the workforce increased which led to better services rendered for the people of Reykjavik. The amount of paid overtime was reduced according to the city’s time tracking systems.

    The city also measured the efficiency of the employees participating in the experimental project and it showed that it remained the same or even increased.

    End of the project

    The pilot project with Reykjavik city ended in the autumn of 2019 and the participating workplaces went back to former working hours. The negotiations of the collective wage agreements had been ongoing since early 2019 and the hopes were high on a short negotiation period. As it happened, the negotiations took longer than expected and agreements were finally signed in March 2020. This meant that the break between the ending of the pilot and the actual signed agreement on a shorter work week was far longer than expected.

  • The State pilot project

    The State pilot project

    At BSRB’s congress in 2015, Bjarni Benediktsson, Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, delivered a letter of intent from the government regarding a pilot project on a shorter work week, to the president of BSRB. In April 2016 the Minister of Social Affairs appointed a working body around the pilot project.

    The objective was to determine the impact of shorter working hours, scaling back from 40 to 36 hours per week with a mutual gain for the employees and the government agencies participating. A special consideration was to be given to different ways on how to implement this within the various kind of institutions including those with shift workers.

    Four workplaces were selected from several institutions that applied to participate in the pilot project. The institutions that participated were the Westfjord Police, Iceland Revenue and Customs, The Directorate of Immigration and Register Iceland.

    The pilot project was to last for a year, starting in April 2017. The work hours of the employees were reduced from 40 down to 36 without an impact on salaries. A set of measurements was set up to find out how the reduced hours affected the quality of the service provided by the institutions as well as the wellbeing and job satisfaction of the employees. A comparative study was set up with other workplaces that didn’t cut the work hours serving as comparison for those that did.

    Among the four institutions that participated in the trial, only one had a significant number shift workers. It was later decided to add a second work place with a large number of shift workers to study the effect on shift workers in more detail.

    A measurable success

    The first results from the experiment were published in Frettabladid (a local newspaper) in April 2018 in an article by the Minister of Social Affairs. The minister briefly went over the outcome of two surveys and focus groups, which indicated that the pilot project was producing measurable and positive results. The job satisfaction had increased, the staff enjoyed a better quality of life and it found it easier to combine work and private life. In March 2018 it was decided to extend the pilot project for one year at the institutions already participating.

    In the beginning of July in 2018 it was announced that the fifth workplace had been chosen to participate in the pilot project. The medical ward at the Health Care Institution of West Iceland was chosen, mainly to add another workplace with a large number of shift workers. Many employees in the public sector are employed by the health sector and it was therefore considered essential to evaluate the effect of the shorter work week on this group.

    A positive experience and influence

    In April 2019, after the pilot project had been running for a year, the Ministry of Social Affairs published a report with the findings after the first year. Employee surveys showed that the project had a positive impact on the daily wellbeing of employees at work and home. Economic indicators measuring sick leave, overtime pay and efficiency showed that a shorter work week did not have a negative impact on any of those factors.

    Surveys commissioned confirmed that negative mental and physical symptoms of stress and exhaustion had been reduced. Job satisfaction had been improved and employee attitude towards the work and independency scored higher. The participants also felt that it was easier to tell what was expected of them and they experienced less discrimination.

    The employees also felt that the administration was fairer and the leaders more reasonable. The conclusion was that there was a better balance between work and private life. Comparison results in workplaces that did not participate in the pilot projects were on the whole far worse than in the workplaces that did participate both when it came to measurements taken six and twelve months after the start of the pilot project.

    No negative impact on productivity or results

    Economic indicators used to measure sick days, overtime payments and productivity showed that overtime had been reduced at two institutions but had increased in other two. A similar conclusion was reached about sick days. This could, in parts, be explained by the difference in measurements due to differences in the individual workplaces but the bottom line was that cutting the work hours did not have a negative effect.

    In June 2019 the Ministry of Social Affairs published a report with the results of focus groups as well as interviews with employees and their spouses. In short, the results were very positive both when it came to work and family life.

    According to the managers, the employees were more effective, took shorter breaks and cooperation had increased. The overall working time decreased according to time sheets, but some employees kept on doing overtime simply because of a lack of staff and workload peeks.

    More time for leisure after work

    Employees experienced more time for leisure after work, and frequently spent this extra time with family or friends, or spent it on various leisure activities. Those that finished work early on Fridays were especially happy and reported that the weekends felt much longer as a result.

    Shift workers felt they had more time with their families but other employees often felt that they left work without being able to finish what they needed to do at the end of the day.

    Interviews with the spouses of employees that took part in the pilot project concluded that a shorter work week had reduced stress on their family, especially with those with small children. The general feeling was that it had reduced stress in the mornings and in the afternoon and that the employees were less tired after work.

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