Swedish researchers examined whether a six-hour workday is the way forward; here’s what they found

Swedish researchers examined whether a six-hour workday is the way forward; here's what they found

Care workers are one of the groups of workers that could really stand to benefit from the introduction of a six-hour workday.

(AP/Bob Edme)

In February 2015, Gothenburg’s City Council voted to run an 18-month experiment at its Svartedalen elderly care home. The staff would transition from a standard eight-hour working day to just six hours a day with no pay cut. Amidst growing media attention, the question was really whether it was possible, even for progressive and advanced Sweden, to cut down on the amount of work hours and yet stay productive.

“Change is possible and we can definitely move towards working only six hours a day,” Daniel Bernmar, a Gothenburg City Councillor with the Left Party, tells Equal Times. Bernmar is one of the people behind the experiment with reduced working hours carried out between 2015 and 2017. “All in all, what we did a few decades ago was move from a 48-hour work week to a 40-hour week.”

Sweden is not new to small-scale experiments with less orthodox working schedules.

Car manufacturer Toyota adopted a six-hour working day in its Swedish production plants almost 13 years ago. The northern mining town of Kiruna ran a reduced working schedule for almost 16 years in the 1990s and 2000s but the programme was cut after raw data failed to produce any concrete evidence on the actual efficacy of a shorter working day.

This time around, however, the outcome may be different. The data collected during the Gothenburg care home experiment could now answer the questions raised by past experiments such as the one in Kiruna.

The fact that the Gothenburg pilot had the Svartedalen care home as its testing ground is no coincidence. In Sweden almost one-fifth of the population is over 65. The number of people over 80 is expected to soar from half a million to 800,000 in the next two decades. Healthcare workers — traditionally women — are often forced to work gruelling shifts with significant repercussions on their health and productivity.

“By reducing the amount of hours per shift, we wanted to see if we could have an impact on the way nurses take care of their patient,” says Benmar. In this regard, the results were impressive: “Day-to-day interaction improved when the staff were less stressed. The guests and the staff were more engaged. We measured the amount of daily activities organised for our guests and we found them to have risen by 60 per cent. The number of sick leave days plummeted, too.”

A shorter working day – but at what cost?

A shorter working day not only benefits individual workers. According to preliminary analysis of the data, it could also have major upsides for the government’s welfare expenditure.

“If implemented widely, the fiscal impact would be extremely positive,” adds Bernmar. “Hiring more people means lower unemployment, for example, which is a social cost. Shortening work shifts and making them less stressful leads to fewer cases of sick leave, which translates into a smaller burden on the healthcare system.”

But it is not all pluses. “Overall, hiring more people drives costs up by 20 or 30 per cent for the local authorities,” admits Bermar. “But in the long run, it drives down collateral costs associated with unemployment and healthcare by 15 per cent.”

Although the project was designed and executed on a local level, the national government in Stockholm could also reap the benefits of a wider implementation of a shorter working day. “What is interesting is that the costs for the execution of the project were shouldered by the local authority,” explains Benmar. “But the fiscal benefits are for the central government that would see a reduction on healthcare and welfare costs.”

The immediate costs associated with a shorter working day are indeed a factor preventing the labour market from seriously considering a 30-hour-week. According to Joa Bergold, Welfare and Equality Policy Investigator at LO, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, the resistance that a six-hour workday has encountered is also a matter of priority and vision.

For Bergold, the government’s policy focus seems to be on putting more people to work according to the traditional model of employment.

“At the moment, reducing part-time work and implementing a full-time norm per capita is on the top of the agenda. Because a standard eight-hour day is perceived to be the main indicator for economic growth and welfare sustainability.”

Despite the potential to scale up what was tried out in Gothenburg, a shorter working day remains a sensitive matter in the political arena. The pilot was first passed and implemented under the leadership of Gothenburg’s mayor Ann-Sofie Hermansson, a former LO official. The Left Party managed to pass the scheme with the key support of their coalition partners.

The pilot was not, however, spared a barrage of criticism from opposition groups, particularly as the immediate costs outweighed the perceived benefits. The centre-right opposition filed a motion to disrupt the experiment earlier than expected, in May last year, highlighting what they saw as the unfairness of spending taxpayers’ money on a project that was not economically viable.

The pilot did manage to stay within budget, however, with a total expenditure of 12 million Swedish kronor, which is roughly €1.2 million. But since the end of the experiment, the political makeup of the city council has changed greatly. “Our coalition partners lost their seats. We are now in a minority rule, making it difficult to renew the programme further,” says Bernmar.

For some, certainly for Bernmar, the biggest achievement of the Svartedalen pilot goes beyond its positive, practical impact. The ensuing public debate about the validity of the standard Swedish workday seems to be the true success. “There is a sprawling world of people that are interested in reducing work hours. We are receiving a lot of attention from the international media and non-political actors who are interested in our experiment,” the councillor admits.

And what about the private sector?

The Gothenburg experiment has not only impacted the public sector. Corporate culture, especially in younger companies and start-ups, also seems to be changing, and a number of private employers have introduced a shorter day – albeit with mixed results.

Maria Brath is the CEO of the SEO company Brath. When she founded the company with her brother in 2013, she introduced a six-hour working day from the very beginning. “We knew the benefits of working a bit less every day but more efficiently,” Brath tells Equal Times. “We drew a list of pros and cons, and we decided to give the shorter days a shot.”

Brath and her employees had to work on how to enhance productivity despite having fewer hours at their disposal. “We built a dedicated software that helped us schedule our work in the most efficient way possible. We work towards scheduled production targets. Our employees are always part of the discussion on how to improve our workflow.”

But productivity and efficiency are not granted during a shorter day in the office. Or at least not from the very start. “You don’t reach the peak of your productivity right away. It takes time. We were not as productive five years ago as we are now.”

Other companies venturing into the uncharted new world of shorter hours were not as satisfied as Brath. 

“When we read about the six-hour work day in the news, we all chuckled at the idea,” says Erik Gatenholm, CEO of the Gothenburg-based 3D bio-printing company Cellink.

“I was not convinced it was a viable option but I was willing to give it a shot to test the waters. So, we tried it out with our production staff. In the end, we realised it wasn’t for us. Our production team was too stressed and felt they weren’t able to accomplish what needed to be done on a daily basis,” Gatenholm explains.

He says that the company decided to transition back into a normal working day within a matter of weeks.

Despite the end of the care home experiment, the campaign for a shorter day is far from over. Bernmar tells Equal Times that there is a plan to apply the same sort of experiment to smaller groups of social workers, another professional category under intense strain in Sweden.

“What we are trying to do now is continue to experiment and collect data on a small scale in order to build a case,” Bernmar explains. “It’s been a fascinating journey. In Germany, certain contracts require 28 hours a week. Some people said it was not possible. But this is already happening.”

The findings of the Gothenburg experiment will be published in August, according to Bengt Lorentzon, one of the researchers who spoke to Equal Times. The results yield the potential for a radical shift in the way Swedish and European work culture is conceived and how the traditional 40 hour-a-week could only be a convention made valid by tradition than its efficiency.