Why Sweden Said ‘Ja’ to 6-Hour Workdays

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Long day at the office? Logging some overtime? Feel like you see your boss’s face more than your own family at home?

If a standard eight-hour workday sounds like a holiday to you, consider a new labour experiment in Sweden, which has introduced a six-hour workday.

The city council of Gothenburg last year agreed to shorten working hours, trimming the day to a family-friendly six hours from eight. Retirement homes, hospitals and public service offices in Sweden’s second-largest city was a scheme to boost productivity and increase life satisfaction of employees.

Health Benefits

The Gothenburg government’s thinking? Happier workers could accomplish just as much doing 30 hours of work a week as 40 hours. So far, according to city councillors, the trial has been working, with the Svartedalens retirement home reporting that its nursing staff were less stressed and were providing a better quality of care. The takeaway for the residents was positive, too, with patients saying they themselves were feeling better than ever before.

The Toyota Services centre in Gothenburg actually rolled back to a six-hour workday at its plant in 2002. Martin Banck, the managing director at the factory, instituted the switch and said that workplace accidents started to decline, employees were happier, turnover decreased and recruiting new workers was easier on the six-hour workday.

Six-hour workdays aren’t unheard of in North America, either.

University of Iowa labour historian Benjamin Hunnicutt wrote about shorter-hour “timesizing” in his book Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day, about the cereal company’s decision to change working hours during the Great Depression in 1930.

It was company founder K.W. Kellogg’s idea to institute the six-hour day with full pay to attract more hires at the plant in Battle Creek, Michigan. According to Hunnicutt, who interviewed many of those labourers before the program ended in 1985, the scheme proved very popular.

Living the Dream

“These folks at Kellogg’s loved it. They just loved it. They said they were living the American dream,” Hunnicutt said in an interview. “More time with family was a strong reason. Several of them said they had plenty of time to spend with their children. They bragged about more time with their spouses. One gentleman, Art White, and his wife, they just talked about how much time they got to spend together.”

The Metro Plastics plant in Noblesville, Indiana, runs on what owner and operations manager Ken Hahn calls a “30 for 40” plan — that is, 30 hours of work for 40 hours of pay.

“Originally, it was a bit of gamble,” Hahn said in an interview. “But we found other benefits that came along with the program. For example, we didn’t have to have extra staff to give breaks, we didn’t need extra staff for lunches.”

Not Watching the Clock

Metro Plastics interviews potentially hires about their outside hobbies and careers to gauge whether they’ll spend their time off in personally rewarding ways. Some are in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, take extra college courses, or are in semi-retirement.

“The fact they’re only here six hours, they’re very alert, they’re not watching the clock. It goes by fast,” Hahn said. “Everybody’s an adult. They can use the bathroom, get a drink of water, get a snack, do what they need to do, but pretty much a lot of that social chaos is eliminated.”

Of course, what Hahn refers to as “social chaos” is what many North American workers might enjoy most about their working days. The chit-chat, gossip and browsing on Facebook may not be work-related, but it’s a way to fill eight hours.

Therein lies the point of the Swedish experiment. As articulated by the economist C. Northcote Parkinson, the so-called Parkinson’s law of efficiency dictates that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” It may be all a matter of how some workers choose to spend their time.