What happened when Sweden tried six-hour working days

Participants felt healthier, happier, had more energy and were more productive - so why has the trial stopped with no plans to revive it?

Ben Chapman
Friday 10 February 2017 19:05 GMT
(Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


A six-hour working day with full-time wages sounds like a dream for most people, but for a group of 70 Swedish nurses it has been a reality for the past two years.

They were part of a trial aimed at testing the benefits of less work, which gained a huge amount of attention around the world.

But is the nine-to-five really going to be a thing of the past?

The results of the trial released so far are encouraging.

Nurses working shorter hours took less sick days, felt healthier and were more productive.

They also said they were 20 per cent happier on average and had more energy at work and in their spare time. This allowed them to arrange 85 per cent more physical activities with elderly residents, the study found.

Assistant nurse Emilie Telander, who has now gone back to eight-hour shifts, told the BBC: “I feel that I am more tired than I was before.”

“During the trial all the staff had more energy. I could see that everybody was happy.”

Despite the positive results there was one big problem: the cost. The city of Gothenburg spent £12m kronor (£1.1m) on the trial, largely because, despite productivity gains, it had to hire 17 extra nurses to cover the lost hours.

Even in Sweden, famed for its generous welfare state, this is apparently too much to bear.

“Could we do this for the entire municipality? The answer is no, it will be too expensive,” Daniel Bernmar, a Left Party councillor who has backed the Gothenburg pilot scheme said.

However, Bernmar says the trial has “put the shortening of the work day on the agenda both for Sweden and for Europe, which is fascinating."

While the idea may not be viable in face-to-face work such as nursing, where lost hours still have to be covered anyway, in more flexible working environments such as Sweden's booming tech start-ups, some companies have reported more success.

Linus Feldt, chief executive of app developer Filimundus told The Independent that sick leave dropped by a quarter when it shortened working hours. Meanwhile, employees produced the same amount in six hours as they previously had in eight.

"The biggest effect was that people were happy when coming to work and leaving work. There was not that fatigued feeling after a long workday. The employees felt more happy overall," Feldt said, adding that there are now less conflicts at the workplace and better focus.

Employees simply cut out distractions such as "social media and the little things we tend to do when we are bored or fatigued and instead focus for 6 hours," Feldt said.

While it may have captured many headlines, as well as the attention of overworked people around the globe, the idea of a six-hour working day has struggled to gain widespread political support in Sweden.

The Left Party is the only party in the country that backs shorter working hours and won just six per cent of the vote in the last general election.

Attempts to prove the economic efficiency of reduced hours have produced inconclusive results so far.

A handful of trials in the 1990s and 2000s were scrapped due to a lack of definitive data.

Another recent Swedish trial at a retirement home in the town of Umeå found that sick leave actually rose, from 8 per cent to 9.3 per cent.

One success has come at Toyota’s Swedish service centre where shifts were cut in 2003, sparking an immediate boost to productivity and increased profits.

The company has kept the shorter hours ever since.

If a six-hour day isn’t catching on in Sweden, with its famously generous welfare system and emphasis on work-life balance, there seems little hope for workers in “Anglo Saxon” economies like the UK.

But some companies have taken up the idea. Liverpool-based Agent Marketing first trialled shorter days for two months in early 2016.

Speaking to The Independent, Agent’s managing director Paul Corcoran said: “There were loads of really great benefits. People were refreshed and more creative. It was good for effectiveness and efficiency.”

Clients also noticed the happiness of the employees which helped win business, Corcoran said.

Agent stuck rigidly to the six hour format at first which led to some impressive changes.

Corcoran said one hour meetings have been cut to fifteen minutes because of the imperative to save time.

But he added: “There were challenges surrounding it. Surprisingly it sometimes actually brought about more stress, because people feel they’ve got to get their work done more quickly in order to go earlier,” Corcoran said.

Eventually, the company settled for a compromise - every Friday is a six hours and employees can each choose another shorter day each week. The other three are normal business hours. But the benefits have remained, with happier, more productive employees, Corcoran said.

The company also provides meditation, pilates and a monthly massage to all staff.

But even this seemingly perfect workplace can’t avoid commercial realities.

“In the end, the most important thing is getting the work done for our clients otherwise we’ll be doing zero hour working days because we would have no clients,” Corcoran said.

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