A few years ago, Sweden was in the headlines for experimenting with a six-hour workday.
John Maynard Keynes famously predicted a ubiquitous 15-hour workweek by the year 2030 — a direct result of technological advances, he claimed. Written in a 1930 essay, the feasibility of his prediction wanes as 2030 looms closer, and the 40-hour workweek remains the norm. Still, as many continue to question the efficacy of the 40-hour workweek, Sweden has experimented with a 30-hour one (just six hours per day, as opposed to eight). While still quite a ways from Keynes’s 15-hour workweek, the 6 hour workday trial has been shown to increase efficiency and reduce sick days when implemented.
Of course, questions and doubts remain — How reliable are these trials? How is success measured? Could we garner similar positive results in the United States? And — the big one — how expensive is all this? Below, we delve deeper into the 6 hour workday experiment, and its various successes and failures:
The Shortcomings of the 40-hour Workweek
In 2014, Stanford University published a study demonstrating the “nonlinear” relationship between hours worked and output. John Hicks, another British economist, speculated that “it has never entered the heads of most employers…that hours could be shortened and output maintained,” and the Stanford study essentially confirms this. It concludes that “below an (48) hours threshold, output is proportional to hours,” but “above a threshold, output rises at a decreasing rate as hours increase.” Therefore, it is possible to have more productive hours in a work day by reducing the number of hours worked.
With businesses continuing to cite lacking productivity as a persistent issue, it’s not far-fetched to conclude that the 8 hour workday doesn’t serve employees or organizations as well as we’d like. Additional studies document other detriments, including the “chronic condition” of feeling overworked, and even an increased likelihood of making mistakes at work.
The 6-hour workday experiment
For over a year, nurses at the Svartedalens retirement home in Gothenburg have worked 6-hour days for an 8-hour salary in a trial funded by the Swedish government. The experiment is tightly controlled, with data from the Svartedalens home being compared to a control group at a similar facility.
As of now, the study has shown that the 68 nurses on the 6 hour workday took half as much sick time as those in the control group, and were 2.8 times less likely to take time off in a two-week period.
The nurses were also reported as 20 percent happier than the control group, believed to have more energy at work and in their spare time, and ultimately were able to do 64 percent more activities with the residents of their facility. As reported in Trouw — a Dutch daily newspaper — residents claimed to feel better cared for, and employees reported feeling healthier.
But how accurate is this data? Well, according to researcher Bengt Lorentzon, the data is very reliable this time around — thanks to the ultimate failure of a previous 6 hour workday experiment in Sweden (due to a lack of reliable data). “This trial is very, very clean because it’s just one homogenous group of workers,” says Lorentzon.
According to Gothenburg politician Daniel Bernmar, who runs the municipality’s elderly care, the 6 hour workday experiment is “absolutely” associated with higher costs. Ultimately, he says, “it’s far too expensive to carry out a general shortening of working hours within a reasonable time frame.”
And, with the 2-year experiment announcing its end it looks like Bernmar was right — costs may have outweighed benefits for the Swedish nursing home. Though the experiment garnered some very real benefits, the retirement home had to hire 17 additional employees to accommodate shortened hours — resulting in high costs for Swedish taxpayers. This need for additional staff added about 12 million kroner ($1.3 million USD) in costs, but about half this expense was allegedly offset by the decrease in sick days and time off.
The 6-hour workday experiment
While the nursing home experiment did not generate the desired results, the interest in a shorter working day is far from over. Since the experiment, several other organizations and nations have been looking into implementing some form of shorter working days.
In 2020, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin advocated for the adoption of a 6 hour work day. However, Finland is only one example among many other countries looking to reduce working hours in a bid to improve working conditions and work-life balance. Several organizations in Stockholm have been offering flexible working hours for a while now to achieve that aim and the results have been impressive.
Another excellent example is Norway. Norway has the third lowest average workweek in the world with workers putting in 38 hours per week only. Despite this, Norway is also the second-most productive nation. Denmark is another Scandinavian country with a high productivity level despite shorter workweeks. It is ranked as the 7th most productive nation in the world but their workweek is only 37 hours long.
Back in 2019, Microsoft Japan also tested a 4-day workweek and they noticed that productivity jumped by 40% during that period. Apart from the nursing home, there have been other Swedish organizations looking into reducing working hours such as Toyota. All of them have shown promising results in productivity per hour worked.
There are other benefits to consider as well. New Economics Foundation, a London-based, left-leaning think tank, reports that cutting the work week roughly in half could help to address overwork, unemployment, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to simply enjoy life.
Therefore, in the coming years, there is likely to be an increase in companies and nations looking to adopt shorter working hours. Australia, for example, has already started contemplating such a step and more countries are sure to follow.
These examples go on to show that hours and productivity are not proportional in any way. The fact is that the 8 hour work day standard has been in effect since the Industrial Revolution. However, technology has come a long way since then and simplified many tasks, resulting in more productive hours in a work day. There is no longer a need to work more just to be productive. Adopting the less work but more productivity mindset should become the new goal and considering the productivity per hour worked as a metric instead of only the hours worked.