Sweden’s six-hour workday experiment is over — but could it succeed in America?
The Swedish city of Gothenburg has abandoned its six-hour work day, citing high costs for taxpayers, but some workplace experts say it should not be prohibited for American workers.
The deputy mayor of Gothenburg in Sweden was testing a 30-hour week for staff at a nursing home with 68 employees. The results showed that the employees felt healthier, that there was less absenteeism and patients were better cared for, the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw reported Wednesday. The upside, however, did not outweigh the extra costs. The nursing home had to take on an additional 17 extra staff. Daniel Bernmar, a local left-wing politician responsible for running the municipality’s elderly care, told Bloomberg: “It’s far too expensive to carry out a general shortening of working hours within a reasonable time frame.”
Countries with the largest reduction in work hours had the largest increase in employment rates since the Great Recession. Workers in Greece clock 2,042 hours a year versus 1,371 in Germany.
Cutting the work week roughly in half could help to address overwork, unemployment, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to simply enjoy life, according to a report from the London-based, left-of-center think tank New Economics Foundation. “Quality of life, stress reduction, and engagement in our work increase with shorter workweeks,” adds Steve Langerud, a workplace consultant based in Grinnell, Iowa. That said, if income dropped with hours worked, shorter workweeks could create problems. (One solution put forward by Mexican telecom billionaire Carlos Slim in 2014: a three-day workweek but working 10 to 11 hours a day.)
More people working from home may help prevent burnout, but it also means workers are always connected to their jobs. “Americans are among the hardest working people in the world,” Mark Hamrick, Washington, D.C. bureau chief with personal finance website Bankrate.com, told MarketWatch. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the industrialized world that doesn’t require employers to offer paid parental leave or require employers to provide paid time off. Americans only take half of their paid vacation days, research by market research firm Harris Interactive and careers website Glassdoor found.
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Countries with the largest reduction in work hours had the largest increase in employment rates since the Great Recession, says Dean Baker, co-director of the left-of-center Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. “Countries like Germany stand out,” he says. Most other countries have shorter work weeks than the U.S., according to the most recent figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 35-member intergovernmental organization based in Paris. And workplace productivity doesn’t increase with hours worked. Workers in Greece clock 2,042 hours a year versus 1,371 in Germany, for example, but the latter’s productivity is 70% higher. (It was 1,790 in the U.S.)
Long weekly hours and long daily hours do not necessarily yield high output, according to a 2014 study by John Pencavel, an economist at Stanford University. Pencavel looked at British workers during the First World War when the government was determined to produce more weapons and machinery to win the war, and regularly assessed productivity. These munition workers could have benefited from shorter hours. “Hours reductions would have had small or no damaging effects on output,” he found. “Those weeks without a day of rest from work had about 10% lower output than weeks when there was no work on Sunday holding weekly hours constant.”
A shorter workweek doesn’t necessarily lead to happier employees, either. Long working hours might not be as negatively related to worker well-being as predicted by previous research, according to a study called “Work Shorter, Be Happier?” published in 2013 in the Journal of Happiness Studies, a peer reviewed scientific journal devoted to subjective well-being. While people welcomed the reduction in working hours, those reductions had no impact on job and life satisfaction, researcher Robert Rudolf, assistant professor in the Division of International Studies at Korea University, found when he analyzed data between 1998 and 2008.