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Sweden’s Intriguing 6-Hour Workday Experiment

Could U.S. firms take a page from this anti-burnout idea?


I have to say, I was more than a little intrigued by the recent New York Times article, In Sweden, an Experiment Turns Shorter Workdays Into Bigger Gains, about employees in Gothenburg, the country’s second-largest city, testing out a six-hour workday at full pay to prevent burnout.

Odds are, if you’re putting in eight, nine, 10 or — please, no! — even more hours a day at work, you’ll be curious to see how the experiment goes. And, more importantly, you may be wondering if U.S. employers might offer six-hour workdays, too.

What’s good is that we’re happy. And a happy worker is a better worker.

— Arturo Perez, a Swedish six-hour-a-day worker

So far, the results of the two-year test in Gothenburg (hometown of Academy Award-winning actress Alicia Vikander) look encouraging.

Healthier, More Efficient Nurses and Doctors

According to The Times, Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska University Hospital’s orthopedics unit switched 89 nurses and doctors to a six-hour day last year, hiring 15 staffers to ensure the hospital work got done. The test was expensive — costing the hospital $123,000 a month — but no one has called in sick since it began and the nurses and doctors have been more efficient.

Similarly, since February 2015, the publicly funded Svartedalens nursing home has let 80 nurses work six-hour shifts and receive their eight-hour salaries while 80 staffers at another nursing home work their standard hours. The upshot? So far, sick leave is half the average absenteeism rate in Gothenburg city, the nurses are happier and the care is better, Bengt Lorensson, lead consultant contracted by the city council to analyze the data, just told The Local, the largest English language news network in Europe.

“Right now, we’re only looking at early indications, but we can see that the quality of work is higher,” among the six-hour workers, Lorensson told BBC News in November.

Arturo Perez, a Svartedalens caregiver and single father who formerly came home frazzled after his eight hours a day tending to residents with senility or Alzheimer’s, said in The New York Times: “What’s good is that we’re happy. And a happy worker is a better worker.”

The Gothenburg experiment is run by Daniel Bernmar, leader of the Left party on the city council, who was quoted as saying: “We’ve had 40 years of a 40-hour work week, and now we’re looking at a society with higher sick leaves and early retirement. We want a new discussion in Sweden about how work life should be to maintain a good welfare state for the next 40 years.

America’s Average Workweek: 39 Hours

Much of America’s workforce, I believe, is as frazzled as Perez was. The average workweek is roughly 39 hours — that’s about eight hours a day and roughly the same length it’s been since World War II. (The Atlantic says American workers spend 1.5 to three hours a day on private activities at work, like online shopping and personal phone calls. My response: I’m sure even the six-hour Swedes are doing some of those things.)

A few businesses in Sweden — including a Toyota service center and the Background AB digital production company — have voluntarily switched to six-hour workdays, saying that they’ve seen less turnover, more productivity and increased creativity. The Times cited a 20-person Stockholm Internet search optimization startup that’s had six-hour workdays for three years and has doubled its revenue and profit each year. “We don’t send unnecessary emails or tie ourselves up in meetings. If you have only six hours to work, you don’t waste your time or other people’s time,” the Times quoted a staffer there saying.

Opposition to the 6-Hour Workday

Not everyone in Sweden — or elsewhere— is a fan of six-hour workday experiments, though.

“It’s the type of economic thinking that has gotten other countries in Europe into trouble,” Gothenburg’s deputy mayor and a member of the opposition Moderates party, Maria Ryden, told The Times. She fought to pull the plug on the six-hour workday trial, but the council just extended it through year’s end.

In yesterday’s Independent, Pramila Rao, an associate professor of human resource management at Marymount University, said: “The six-hour workday has not been well accepted in many countries because organizations are worried their productivity might fall.”

Could a 6-Hour Workday Happen Here?

Frankly, I doubt many U.S. companies will switch to six-hour workdays, even though doing so would likely make their employees less stressed and happier. As Rao said: “The Swedish model will not be easily accepted in the U.S. because we are a nation of workaholics.”

But maybe Sweden’s experiments will be so impressive, a few progressive firms here will give it a shot. Meantime, I can’t wait to take vacation next week so I can get a chance to recharge my batteries before returning to my typical workday.

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