Count on the Swedes to explore an alternative to the traditional eight-hour workday. According to the Guardian, the effort was spearheaded by retirement home, whose overworked nurses opted to shave off two hours of every workday — without a reduction in wages — in an effort to improve their efficiency.
“I used to be exhausted all the time, I would come home from work and pass out on the sofa,” says Lise-Lotte Pettersson, 41, an assistant nurse at Svartedalens care home in Gothenburg. “But not now. I am much more alert: I have much more energy for my work, and also for family life”.
The Svartedalens experiment is inspiring others around Sweden: at Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska University hospital, orthopaedic surgery has moved to a six-hour day, as have doctors and nurses in two hospital departments in Umeå to the north. And the trend is not confined to the public sector: small businesses claim that a shorter day can increase productivity while reducing staff turnover.
At Svartedalens, the trial is viewed as a success, even if, with an extra 14 members of staff hired to cope with the shorter hours and new shift patterns, it is costing the council money. Ann-Charlotte Dahlbom Larsson, head of elderly care at the home, says staff wellbeing is better and the standard of care is even higher.
Indeed, it is quite anomalous that people continue to work increasingly harder and longer despite the vast gains in productivity. Technological and administrative innovation has allowed people to do a lot more in an hour than ever before, so why should workers continue to strain themselves, often for meager compensation, to undermine these gains? Why shouldn’t productivity be used to its greatest effect, by allowing people to balance work and leisure to society’s benefit?
As the Swedes prove, this approach is effective for a variety of industries, not just medicine.
At Toyota service centres in Gothenburg, working hours have been shorter for more than a decade. Employees moved to a six-hour day 13 years ago and have never looked back. Customers were unhappy with long waiting times, while staff were stressed and making mistakes, according to Martin Banck, the managing director, whose idea it was to cut the time worked by his mechanics. From a 7am to 4pm working day the service centre switched to two six-hour shifts with full pay, one starting at 6am and the other at noon, with fewer and shorter breaks. There are 36 mechanics on the scheme.
“Staff feel better, there is low turnover and it is easier to recruit new people,” Banck says. “They have a shorter travel time to work, there is more efficient use of the machines and lower capital costs – everyone is happy.” Profits have risen by 25%, he adds.
Martin Geborg, 27, a mechanic, started at Toyota eight years ago and has stayed there because of the six-hour day. “My friends are envious”, he says. He enjoys the fact that there is no traffic on the roads when he is heading to and from work. Sandra Andersson, 25, has been with the company since 2008. “It is wonderful to finish at 12”, she says. “Before I started a family I could go to the beach after work – now I can spend the afternoon with my baby”.
The results make intuitive sense: you give people down time and a chance to enjoy their lives, and they come back to work each day with more energy, enthusiasm, and productivity. Happy workers are better workers. Setting aside the ethical advantages of giving employees more leisure, businesses stand to gain a lot by offering a decent standard of living (which to be sure, includes not just free time, but a living wage).
These Swedish case studies are hardly the only ones validating this lesson: there is ample research and documentation showing that humanity can indeed get the best of both worlds: lots of time for leisure, recreation, and loved ones, and plenty of output in the workplace. It is pretty much only the powers that be, and the culture of excessive work that they have inculcated society with, that is stopping us from reaping these benefits.