by Olivia Goldhill
Most Western employees are used to spending more time with their colleagues than with their family. In the US, employees spend an average 47 hours per week at the office in a desperate bid to impress the boss and prove their work ethic before heading home, exhausted.
But a Swedish city has challenged this accepted practice by introducing a six-hour work day.
In April 2014, the government of Gothenburg announced that public sector employees would work fewer hours in an experiment to improve work-life balance, boost productivity, and ultimately cut costs. So far, it’s viewed as a success.
At Gothenburg’s Svartedalens care home, the standard of care increased when nurses switched to a six-hour day in February, head of elderly care Ann-Charlotte Dahlbom Larsson told The Guardian.
“Since the 1990s we have had more work and fewer people—we can’t do it any more. There is a lot of illness and depression among staff in the care sector because of exhaustion—the lack of balance between work and life is not good for anyone,” she said.
Nurses at the home are reported to be more energetic, less stressed, and able to spend more time with the residents, who in turn feel more comfortable and relaxed.
The council hired 14 extra members of staff to make up for the shorter shifts, so it’s likely that the scheme has cost money overall. But despite the financial downside, other public-sector workers in Sweden are following Svartedalens’s lead. Orthopedic surgery has moved to a six-hour day at Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska University hospital, and doctors and nurses in two hospital departments in Umeå will follow the same working pattern.
In praise of idleness
Gothenburg is not the first to discover that shorter hours can lead to improved work performance. Last year, Stanford economist John Pencavel proved (pdf) that output does not proportionally increase with each additional hour worked. In fact, above a certain number of hours, he found, work output begins to rise more slowly.
British employees work more than French or German employees, but produce, on average, 27% to 31% less than their continental colleagues, according to a 2013 Office For National Statistics report. The US is the second-most productive country worldwide, second only to Luxembourg, according to OCED data, but spends 20% more time at work than those in Luxembourg.
In a 1932 essay entitled “In Praise of Idleness”, philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that, thanks to technological advances, workers could cut their hours by half to a 20-hour week.
“If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment—assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization,” he wrote.
More than 80 years later, Gothenburg are finally putting Russell’s philosophy into practice—or half of it, at least.