When the UAE announced that it was cutting the national working week to four and a half days at the start of 2022, the pioneering move made global headlines.
The sound of staff in human resources departments across the world choking on their morning coffee was all but drowned out by the clatter of keyboards as nine-to-fivers everywhere Googled “Living and working in the United Arab Emirates”.
The UAE has taken this step – a global first – for a number of reasons, not least of which is to “better align the Emirates with global markets, reflecting the country’s strategic status on the global economic map”.
In other words, as Abdulrahman Al Awar, the UAE’s Minister of Human Resources and Emiratisation, told local media, “this decision will allow the UAE economy to be more competitive. It will eliminate the weekend gap and allow more business and exchange of trade with the world economy”.
All true. But the decision was also taken in response to a growing body of evidence that suggests that a shorter working week is good for the mental wellbeing of employees and their families – which, in a nicely symbiotic twist, also turns out to be good for productivity.
While the world’s companies were battling the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 – and in the process discovering that, yes, employees could be trusted to work just as efficiently from home as in the office – Iceland was concluding two large-scale trials designed to measure the impact of a shorter working week.
Between 2015 and 2019, almost 3,000 workers who were enrolled in the trials, run by the city of Reykjavík and the Icelandic government, had their working weeks cut from 40 hours to 35 or 36, without any reduction in pay.
Ahead of the trials, employers predicted gloomily that both output and standards would fall. They were proved wrong.
The report on the trials, Going public: Iceland’s journey to a shorter working week, was published by UK think-tank Autonomy in June. It concluded that there was “no positive correlation between productivity and the amount of hours worked per day: working to the bone does not make ‘business sense’.”
Furthermore, “worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.”
And, in case that wasn’t recommendation enough, the research found “strong indications that reducing the working week can help reduce air pollution and our overall carbon footprint”.
Such was the success of the experiment, that by the time the report on the trials was published in June 2021, more than 85 percent of Iceland’s working population had moved to shorter-hours contracts, or had been given the right to do so in the future.
Pioneering work in this field has been carried out by Sabine Sonnentag, a professor of Work and Organizational Psychology, and colleagues at the University of Mannheim, Germany. Studying people over several years in a wide range of jobs, including clerical workers, paramedics, schoolteachers, civil servants and the self-employed, they concluded that “if workers are able to psychologically detach from their work, more readily facilitated by a reduced working week, they are often more productive [and] engaged on the job”.
What’s more – and this will be good news for anyone trapped in an office with a Monday-morning moaner – they are “more convivial with their colleagues.”
The results of the Icelandic trials reinforced the positive findings of all the research that had gone before. The reductions in working hours, concluded the final report into the experiment, “maintained or increased productivity and service provision” and “improved workers’ wellbeing and work-life balance.”
Furthermore, the research scotched some myths about shorter working weeks. One of these – strongly pushed by reluctant employers’ organizations in Iceland – was that they would lead to overwork, with employees having to work unofficial overtime to make up for their “lost hours”.
The trials “directly contradict this concern,” concluded the researchers. The reduction in working hours “did lead to staff actually working less as a direct result of workplaces implementing new work strategies, and through organizing tasks via cooperation between workers and managers.”
In short, less time was wasted. Meetings, the bane of many a working life, were run more efficiently, less often and, crucially, were kept short. Employees spent less time on coffee breaks, with the prospect of the looming shorter Friday as “the ‘carrot’ that kept them going”.
As for wellbeing, multiple surveys throughout the trials found employees felt more positive, less stressed and generally happier.
One of the many recorded comments from workers on the trial at Reykjavík City Council spoke for many of the participants. The reduction in hours “shows increased respect for the individual. That we are not just machines that just work … all day, then sleep and get back to work. [But that] we are persons with desires and private lives, families and hobbies.”
The same effect was felt among staff at the Wanderlust Group, a US-based outdoor technology company that found the perfect solution to that “Monday morning feeling” among its staff. It gave everyone Mondays off.
“We were all spending an astronomical amount of time in front of screens,” Mike Melillo, CEO of the company, told Fast Company magazine in March this year.
“I always said, if on Sunday night while watching Game of Thrones I was dreading going to work the next day, I should not go to work.”
He was, and he didn’t, and he told his employees to do the same. The result? Increased productivity and happier staff, who on Mondays went sailing instead of commuting. With the working week shortened to four days, Tuesday to Friday, lengthy meetings disappeared, people got more done in less time and the company’s profits increased remarkably.
Not only is there no evidence of a link between national profitability and hours worked, the opposite seems to be true. In Europe, workers in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway currently work the fewest number of hours, but have the best productivity records.
Productivity in the UK, on the other hand, where people spend far more time at work than in Germany, is 26.7 percent below that of its European neighbor. The difference in productivity, says Autonomy, “is such that if German workers were to down tools and stop working early on Thursday lunchtime, they would have produced as much as a British worker would have by the end of the day on Friday”.
The UAE has taken a big leap, one that other countries are considering, but taking cautiously, one step at a time.
Prompted by the pandemic, in January this year the Spanish government announced a three-year pilot program, offering funding to companies prepared to experiment with a 32-hour week.
New Zealand, too, looks like embracing a policy touted last year by prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
In the UK, the Four Day Week Campaign – motto, “Building a world where we work to live, rather than live to work” – frequently posts news about the latest companies giving it a go.
For now, however, the UAE is ahead of the global field as the first country to introduce a shorter working week across all federal employers – with government offices in the emirates following suit and private firms being encouraged to do the same.
In 2019, with 15.93 million international visitors, Dubai made it into the number four slot on the Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index. With the move to a shorter working week, it could soon find itself one of the world’s most preferred destination for work, as well as play.
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.