In Iceland, it was called an "overwhelming success". In New Zealand, an "unmitigated success". And in Spain, a "game changer". All three countries have, to varying degrees, tried the concept of a shorter work week, shrinking the normal 40 hours employees spend on the job into 35 or 36. According to pilot studies, productivity improved by 25-40 per cent.
On Tuesday, the UAE announced that beginning on January 1, federal government workers in the country will shift to a four-and-a-half-day work week, with Friday, previously a day off, turning into a half-day. Consequently, the work week is set to shift from the current Sunday-to-Thursday model, used in most countries in the Arab world, to the Monday-to-Friday format more common internationally. The Friday half-day has the dual benefit of retaining the day's sanctity for Muslim religious services while also shortening the week to 36.5 hours.
UAE officials said the new long weekend will "boost productivity and improve work-life balance". This can help both the private and public sector.
The results from Iceland's trial, which lasted between 2015 and 2019 and applied only to public-sector workers, suggest this is very likely to be the case. In most of the country's government departments, overall output did not suffer from a shorter work week, and in some it improved. Most importantly, workers reported feeling less stressed and healthier, both mentally and physically. While Iceland's trial preceded the pandemic, the added stress factors of Covid-19, combined with the innovations in productivity management brought about by remote working were the primary motivations behind the experiments that have taken place in New Zealand, Spain and other countries.
As NYU Abu Dhabi associate professor Nancy Gleason wrote in an August op-ed in The National, in which she argued for shorter work weeks, the pandemic is "a time to rewrite the capitalist script". The government has set an example, and one that other employers (particularly those who want to use the Monday-to-Friday model to sync up with clients outside the region) may now follow. This happened in Iceland, where nearly 90 per cent of all workers are now given the option by their employers of working fewer hours without a pay cut.
While the concept of the seven-day week is more than 4,000 years old, first instituted by the ancient Akkadian ruler Sargon the Great in what is now Iraq, the concept of a two-day weekend is much younger. It passed into legislation in Britain, France and the US in the 1930s, after labour unions argued that the then-common practice of either a single-day or 1.5-day weekend was harmful to productivity for the rest of the week. It took decades of lobbying to make the change happen; even though the economics made sense, as productivity increases in the following years showed, commonly held preconceptions associating hours worked with work ethic were too strong.
Champions of an even shorter working week in recent decades have long encountered similar obstacles. But the pandemic has been a significant wake-up call, pushing governments and companies alike to take a more practical, evidence-based look at how best to ensure not only economic but also psychological recovery. In fact, as researchers such as Prof Gleason have observed, the two are closely linked. The UAE's announcement marks a turning point for that research and can set a new standard for working life.