What Really Happened When Sweden Trialed A Six-Hour Working Day

For those of you who are currently experiencing a strong case of the January blues thanks to the reluctant return to your nine till five routine, it looks like moving to Sweden might be the best idea you’ve ever had.

Why? Well, back in 2016, it was reported that some Swedish businesses had started playing with the idea of implementing a six-hour working day for their staff. The big idea was that by cutting the number of hours employees spent working, productivity would increase, because workers would be happier.

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I know what you’re thinking. At first glance, it might seem counter-intuitive to claim that working less actually makes us work more. However, it’s a simple fact that happy employees will be more productive, take fewer sick days and increase productivity. And what’s the simplest way to make people happy? Allow them more free time to spend with friends and families, doing the things they love.

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We spend an average of 90,000 hours at work throughout our lifetime, and that’s not even factoring in the time spent getting ready for work, battling through the traffic to get there, and coming home again. In fact, the average American spends a whopping 42 hours per year – yes, that’s an entire working week – simply getting to their job.

It comes as no surprise then, that over half of Americans report they’re unhappy in their jobs. And with the advent of smart phones and omnipresent internet coverage, we’re never truly disconnected from our desks, even when we’re on holiday.

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Over in the UK, more than 45 million working days have been lost due to stress, anxiety and depression over the last three years, costing a staggering £2.4 billion ($2.9 billion).

In Japan, where it’s not uncommon for workers to put in 80-hour weeks, things are even worse. An incredible 10,000 employees die every year as a direct result of the country’s crippling attitude to work. The phenomenon is so widespread that it even has a name: “karoshi”, which is literally translated as “overwork death”.

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This brings us back to Sweden and the six-hour working week. The country’s jealousy-inducing experiment was primarily focussed at Svartedalens retirement home in Gothenburg, where 68 nurses’ daily hours were cut to just six.

After two years, the results are in, and the trial had exactly the outcome expected: staff satisfaction, health, and patient care were all improved. Nurses were 20 per cent happier, and found they had much more energy both at work and in their personal life.

Lotte Pettersson, 41, an assistant nurse at Svartedalens retirement home, noticed some key benefits: “I used to be exhausted all the time, I would come home from work and pass out on the sofa. But not now. I am much more alert: I have much more energy for my work, and also for family life.”

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However, despite the obvious benefits, the experiment also threw up one massive drawback to the shorter working week. The retirement home was forced to employ 17 extra staff, costing a whopping 12 million kroner ($1.7 millon). Sadly, for now, this isn’t a cost it’s able to bear.

Daniel Bernmar, a local politician and a leading advocate of the six-hour working day, admitted: “It’s associated with higher costs, absolutely. It’s far too expensive to carry out a general shortening of working hours within a reasonable time frame.”

In fact, this isn’t the first time the six-hour working day hasn’t worked in Sweden. Back in the 1990s, retirement homes and day care homes tested out the idea, but the costs eventually forced them to switch back.

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But don’t give up hope just yet. While the six-hour working day might be economically out of reach for public sector roles at the moment, there’s one sector where it’s looking a lot more plausible: tech. App developer Filimundus, for example, introduced the concept last year.

As Filimundus CEO Linus Feldt told Fast Company: “The eight-hour work day is not as effective as one would think. To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the work day more endurable.

“At the same time, we are having it hard to manage our private life outside of work. 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.”

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For Filimundus, the results of the shift to the six-hour week are looking promising. As Feldt explained: “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.”

As the Svartedalens retirement home experiment showed, it looks like we may have to wait a long time before the public sector, and rest of the world, catches up with companies like Filimundus. It’s simply a matter of making the economics fit the idea, and for the time being, we’re not quite there yet.

Bernmar agrees: “I personally believe in shorter working hours as a long-term solution. The richer we become, the more we need to take advantage of that wealth in other ways than through a newer car or higher consumption.”

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It was with this kind of economic forward thinking that led Finland, another Scandinavian country, to introduce yet another controversial idea aimed at increasing happiness and freedom: the universal basic income (UBI).

Like the six-hour working day, UBI is designed to give recipients more freedom to spend their time how they choose by receiving a fixed lump sum each month. The sum should be enough to live on, meaning citizens suddenly have the time to start their own businesses, be creative, and actually want, instead of need, to work.

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In the Finland trial, 2,000 unemployed Finns aged 25 to 58 have been given a guaranteed sum of €560 ($586) per month. Even if the group eventually find work, the payment won’t be taken away. This important factor negates the existing trap that job seekers allowance recipients face, in which staying on benefits might actually be a better financial decision than accepting a low skilled, minimum wage, zero hour contract.

But where does the money from UBI come from in the first place? The idea is that by getting rid of the incredibly complex layers of red tape and bureaucracy involved in handing out benefits in the first place, the system should pay for itself.

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Finland’s experiment began on 1 January 2017, and the rest of the world is patiently waiting to see the results. After all, no country ever really wants to be the first to try a radical new idea.

Last year, Switzerland voted on whether they should adopt UBI for the entire country. Just 23 per cent of citizens voted yes. Perhaps if the results of Finland’s 2,000 person experiment prove positive, Switzerland might jump on board too?

As for six-hour days, things are looking positive. Although it will take a long while for the idea to be rolled out across all sectors of industry, it genuinely looks like the days of the 40-hour working week are numbered. And it’s about time.

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