Economy

What Happened When a Swedish Town Tried a Six-Hour Work Day

A two-year test of six-hour work days in Sweden has ended, and the results are spurring an international conversation on working less. 

Sweden has conducted government-funded trials of a six hour workday in the past, and hospitals and Toyota service centers have also done their own experiments. The latest 23 month study is different: It aimed to provide hard data on the relationship between happiness, productivity, and the number of hours worked. 

Starting in 2015, the Swedish government funded an experiment at the Svartedalens elderly-care home in Gothenburg where 70 assistant nurses worked six-hour days at the same pay, according to BBC News. Nurses at the elderly care home took less sick days and reported being happier during the trial. Now that it's ended they're back to working eight-hour days, and aren't thrilled about it.

"I feel that I am more tired than I was before," 26-year-old Assistant nurse Emilie Telander told the BBC. She now has less time to cook and be with her daughter,  she said, and has noticed a difference in her co-workers too. "During the trial all the staff had more energy. I could see that everybody was happy."

Although the experiment resulted in better outcomes for employees, The New York Times reported that the trial at the nursing home in Gothenburg cost the city about $738,000 a year, mostly because of the extra staff that had to be hired to fill the hours gaps. The program increased costs by 22 percent but 10 percent of that was offset because hiring more people reduced the burden on unemployment programs, as well as the cost of sick employees.

Daniel Bernmar, leader of the Left party on Gothenburg’s city council, told the Times that lawmakers and employers should look at the bigger picture for workers, including the connections between heath, happiness, and work. 

"Should we work to live," he asked, "not live to work?”

Would a six-hour work day be a good idea in the United States?

ATTN: spoke to Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., about the possibility of six-hour work days in the U.S.

"We have a hard enough time updating our overtime standards so that people who work more than 40 hours a week get paid appropriately," she said. "The culture of work, [and] the economic system we have set up in this country, would make a six-hour day difficult." 

It's possible that productivity could increase because workers would be better rested and happier, Gould said, but workers would probably have to be paid three-fourths as much to offset the costs to the employer.

However, she said a six-hour work day could help the economy as a whole by reducing unemployment, as employers would have to hire more workers to cover gaps in shift coverage. Parents, caretakers, and people with physical limitations who can't work a full eight-hour day could come back into the workforce. 

"In the U.S., we're still not at full employment, and there's a lot of people who would come back into the labor market, since you still need 40 hours of work done," Gould said. "You create another job, and you would then create more employment, so that is definitely a good thing."

RELATED: What the U.S. Could Learn from Sweden's 6-hour Workday