In 2016, the Swedish city of Gothenburg began trials for a corn-flake capitalism experiment. The government coalition proposed a year-long trial that would divide municipal workers into a test and control group at the same pay rate: with the test group working six-hour days, and the control group working eight-hour days.
The six-hour working day is promoted not only by Vänster (Leftist Party), but also a growing body of academics, who support this transition based on research. An audit published in mid-April concluded that the program in its first year has sharply reduced absenteeism, and greatly improved productivity and worker health.
While eight-hour work day is the norm, not all of those are spent actually working. The average time spent on private activities, such as personal phone calls, chatting with colleagues, checking social media and emails, and online shopping, take up an estimated 1.5 to 3 hours per day. According to CareerBuilder (2016) most employees spend at least an hour or more each work day on personal stuff. So technically, workers spend only 6-hours each working on what they are actually getting paid to take care of. Now, this is an interesting trade-off, making a 35-hour work week, especially for millennials, who value work-life balance a lot more than previous generations.
In a 2012 article for Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny explored the complicated connections between output and work hours:
“The bottom line is that productivity -- driven by technology and well-functioning markets -- drives wealth far more than hours worked. And very few jobs in developed economies nowadays are classic assembly-line positions, where working 20 percent longer will mechanically produce 20 percent more widgets. Psychology plays a role here too: At least 40 years of studies suggest that people work harder if you limit their time to complete a certain task. In some cases, working too hard can actually reduce output. Long working hours are also associated with ill health, which means lost labor in the long term, as well as higher medical costs for employers and government.”
Companies in Sweden are also moving to a six-hour work day, in a bid to reduce absenteeism, and improve productivity and worker health. As a matter of fact, employers across the Scandinavian country have already instituted the change. Toyota centers in Gothenburg, made the transition to a 35-hour work week more than 13 years ago, with the company reporting happier – productive staff, a decrease in turnover rate, and a rise in profits in that time.
Filimindus, a Stockholm-based app develop, introduced the six-hour day in 2015, thinking the change would make employees happier. Linus Feldt, the company’s CEO told Fast Company:
"I think the 8-hour work day is not as effective as one would think. To stay focused on a specific work task for 8 hours is a huge challenge. We want to spend more time with our families, we want to learn new things or exercise more. I wanted to see if there could be a way to mix these things. My impression now is that it is easier to focus more intensely on the work that needs to be done and you have the stamina to do it and still have energy left when leaving the office."
To cope with the 35-hour work week, Filimundus introduced a rigid new productivity policy: mandating that employees must stay off social media during work days and keep off other distractions.
A four-hour work week is something we’re familiar with in the U.S. Although, underemployment became a big issue after the 2008 disaster. Today, even 40 hours a week feels draining to many employees. There are one too many roadblocks along the way.
Towns in Sweden have abandoned this move in the past when it proved costly. Opponents (Moderate Party) in Sweden warn that idea is a utopian folly. If one city or a town, let alone Sweden, were to adopt a 35-hour work week, the economy would be in shambles from reduced competitiveness and strained finances. The opposition Moderates party argues that the government should not intrude in the workplace, citing high tax payer costs. But, a majority of employers in Sweden believe that to implement a six-hour work day, people wages would be lowered, and more people would be working, increasing the profits no matter.
But, let’s be clear: It all comes down to what kind of job you do. A lot of jobs require the worker to be more focused on being on site at the right time. While some jobs demand more than 8 hours because it requires effort that cannot be actually measured in “productivity” or “efficiency”. A reduction in work-day-hours for a pilot, chef, or surgeon, would not benefit in total productivity. Productivity can be increased by reducing the hours per day if you work in an industry with work-load that can be done today as well as tomorrow.
Fundamentally, everything boils down to decreasing amount of time spent at work while improving the amount of work done. Of course, reduced work-hours a day would improve productivity if you refer to psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment (1971). In the workplace, we have a psychology contract that binds us to our work, co-workers and supervisors. If our managers are autocratic and disrespectful, we get pissed at for not being treated better. We expect reciprocity, and as such, when we reduce the work-week to 35 hours, employees feel that their productivity and efficiency must go up for this perk. Moreover, reducing the work-hours in a day, forces workers to increase their efficiency to match their previous base-line.
What does Sweden aim to gain from a 6 hour work day?
- A more focused and productive work force.
- An improved social life and extra time for leisure pursuits for its citizens.
- A shorter peak traffic time.
- A healthier workforce.
Primarily, Sweden’s six-hour work day is to encourage workers to get their tasks done, and leave at a reasonable hour to enjoy a better social life. The key part here lies in the willingness of employees to be disciplined and more focused on their job during the work hours, instead of squandering away the time to do other things. This way, it would be even more economical for employers and would give employees more personal time for leisure pursuits.
Of course, some jobs require longer hours. If companies can pay employees for the extra time if they’re willing to put it in. That’s a win for both sides. In the U.S. though, another added benefit of 35-hour work week is reduced stress. Many workers tend to work far beyond the normal work-life boundaries set by Scandinavian countries. U.S. employees, especially the ones in hyper-competitive sectors such as banking and finance, have an umbilical cord attached to their work emails. It’s made much worse by the advancement of smart technology, as one is expected to respond at any time of the day or night to work demands. Now, such a lifestyle can create chaos in people’s personal lives and reduce the quality of life.
Reducing the work day may not exactly reduce emails, but at the very least, it would reduce stress. Non-work activities, such as power naps and walks, can have an invigorating effect on workers during the day. By shifting to a six-hour work day, employers can obviate small breaks, which would prove to be efficient and increase productivity during work hours.