Sweden’s Six Hour Success?

Sweden’s Six Hour Success?

Sweden, with a population just a touch below 10,000,000, punches (together with other Nordic states Norway and Denmark) above its weight in social experiments and big government. The Swedes are also famous for the meatballs served at IKEA, the Nobel Prizes (named after Arthur Nobel, who invented dynamite), and moody, evocative dance music.

Sweden is now gaining recognition for the six-hour work day. The Government has recently extended an experiment which began in Gothenburg (Sweden’s second-largest city) across the nation. The theory is that with two extra hours a day the Swedes will finally have time to install their IKEA furniture.

Jokes aside, the experiment focuses on collecting and collating nation-wide cost-benefit data of employees working six-hour days for the same pay of eight-hours. It is based on a growing, strong body of work which indicates that productivity does not increase with more hours worked (see reading list below for more). The bigger conversation considers how hours worked, job satisfaction, productivity, health and wealth all relate to each other. Whilst the interconnections are not yet well understood, we do know that more hours do not equal more productivity. In his article “The Productivity of Working Hours”, Stanford Professor John Pencavel found that “The relationship is non-linear: below an hours threshold, output is proportional to hours; above a threshold, output rises at a decreasing rate as hours increase.”

The Gothenburg experiment (named for the city where it began) started at a retirement home – which the Guardian amusingly points out is an “unlikely place for an experiment on the future of work”. Initially, it was a controlled experiment where a test group worked the new six-hour days and a control group continued with the eight-hour day. After one year of the controlled experiment the benefits articulated included:

  • Reduced staff turnover
  • Less sick days taken
  • Improvements in health and well being of staff and mental health
  • Higher productivity
  • The retirement home even reported an increase in profits
  • Decreased work hours increases productivity of hours worked
  • Improved work-life balance providing people with time to engage in exercise and other health boosting activities, including family time.

Similar experiments, although not recorded here, have also seen improvements in employment statistics.

Sweden’s experiment was testing what a large portion of productivity literature has been saying – people have a limited capacity for productive hours, and workplaces benefit from a burst of productivity over people lingering in the workplace.



What could possibly be wrong with six-hours of work?

Seems ideal right? Yet it isn’t being lauded as plausible in all settings. The cases against are articulated as:

  • The model requires working for six hours straight. And that is not great for physical or mental health. Breaks can help improve productivity just as much as reduced hours.
  • It costs more for businesses – this is debatable and is part of the hypothesis being tested.
  • In settings where hours are billed it de-incentivises people.
  • It works well in Sweden because they have limited sunlight hours in the winter, arriving and leaving work in the dark is bad for mental health.
  • It is only a model for OECD nations.


A short history of working hours:

Much of the media surrounding the story is framed as if Sweden is running a dramatic new experiment. However Sweden has been running versions of this experiment for over a decade.  Private enterprises in the Scandinavian nation have long implemented the six-hour day. Toyota, for example, has been using the six-hour model for 13 years in its plants across Gothenburg and, in its own words, “has never looked back.” This opinion piece in The Local, Sweden’s English language newspaper, disputes that Sweden is anywhere near achieving the six-hour day, see: Why Sweden is a long way away from six- hour days. 

Working hours are contemporarily framed as an issue of productivity, but the debate over hours worked has been held since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the ten hour work day in 1700s England.

The 20th Century saw working hours decrease to a standard eight in most industrialised nations, and then begin to creep up again in the last years of the century and across the first two decades of the 21st century. As the New Yorker has highlighted in “The Cult of Overwork”, there has been a strange change in work hours: three decades ago low paid workers overworked and currently overpaid workers overwork. This highlights an additional reason as to why the six-hour day may not work in other settings – some people are addicted to work. Something else of note from the New Yorker article is that experimentation with shorter working hours was conducted by both Kelogg and Ford in the early twentieth century – Ford because he wanted his workers to be his consumers as well.


What other solutions exist?

Legislating and experimenting with work hours and productivity is conducted all over the world. France, for example, has mandated that work ‘devices’ can and should be turned off out of office hours. In 2013, Goldman Sachs disallowed junior analysts to work Saturdays and placed a maximum working week at 75 hours (still double what Sweden is looking at).

A friend who lives in Accra Ghana, which has notorious traffic, recently posted an article about the Swedish experiment on his Facebook page with the comment:

“I think it is good but it requires a lot of monitoring and effective management of time allocated to meetings and the likes. On a light note, I am looking at a situation where I report to work at 8am and close at 3pm (6 hours intense work). I then sit in heavy traffic and get home at 6pm. What a waow.”

This shows that there are many other areas governments and businesses can get involved to make the workday smoother, such as streamlining the commute to work. Workplaces can also assist in cutting down and adjusting unproductive activities such as meetings. Other ways to play around with hours worked is the four day week. The Swedish experiment forces us all to look at, and think about ways to improve productivity and working conditions.


Want to read more?

You can listen to the Centre for Workplace Leadership’s Director, Prof. Peter Gahan, talk on the ABC’s PM program about the Swedish experiment here.

James Surowiecki, in The New Yorker “The Cult of Overwork”

Jaquelyn Smith in Business Insider “Three ways to schedule your workday for maximum productivity”

The Economist, Working hours: Get a Life.

This videoscribe animates Dan Pink’s ideas on what motivates people, Dan Pink: Drive – Our Motivations are Unbelievably Interesting

The Atlantic –  “Sweden: The New Laboratory for a Six-Hour Work Day”

Benjamin Snyder in Fortune “Why Sweden is moving to the six-hour workday”

Charles Kenny in Foreign Policy putting forward the case against working long hours “Work More, Make More? The Case Against Long Hours.”

Image credit: feature

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