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

October 5th 2015

Thor Benson

Americans take note: Sweden is moving toward a six-hour workday. On average, Americans with full-time jobs work almost 50 hours a week. Nearly 20 percent, or about 1 in 5, work over 60 hours per week. While that may seem like the sign of an industrious and productive nation, it actually might show that we're overdoing it. Studies have repeatedly shown employees who work this many hours are significantly less productive than employees who work a typical 40-hour work week or less.

How a shorter workday is already helping Sweden.

Many Swedish companies have already implemented the change, and they've seen positive results. An app developer called Filimundus has found its employees are happier, and productivity has not gone down. "I think the eight-hour workday is not as effective as one would think," Linus Feldt, CEO of Filimundus, told Fast Company. Many experts have argued productivity peaks toward the end of a 40-hour work week.

"Research tells us that people have a limited capacity to focus and this depletes with each effort we make to do so in any given day," John P. Trougakos, an associate professor of Organizational Behaviour & HR Management at the University of Toronto, told ATTN:. "Moreover, unlike a battery which allows an electric device to work at peak efficiency until the charge is zero, people experience a reduced capacity to work effectively as they use more and more of their energy. Thus, a shorter workday is more likely to result in better efficiency in people's efforts." Trougakos also said when people have more time to spend with their families and more time to relax, they take fewer sick days and leave their jobs less quickly, which can save companies a lot of money.

Toyota Services in Gothenburg, Sweden shortened its workday over 13 years ago, and profits have gone up and people are happier. Sweden started a study last year that is looking at how shorter workdays affect productivity and growth.

By contrast here's how Americans operate.

A study published last year found Americans are taking fewer vacation days than at any point in the previous four decades. Despite having the option of taking their vacation days, American workers gave up $52.4 billion in time-off benefits in 2013, essentially giving up a total of 169 million days of paid time off, CNN reported. It appears American workers do this to remain competitive in their fields and to get more work done, but they might actually be hurting their overall performance and their companies. Not only do overworked employees end up being less productive, their health suffers. Depression and heart disease risks rise when people take less time off.

Benefits of a shorter workday.

Frances Legg, a spokesperson for the New Economics Foundation, told ATTN: that shorter work hours can also help create more equality between genders in the work place, as those who have children will have more time to attend to them. She said shorter workdays can not only be beneficial to the employee or society, but they can help create a more competitive country economically. "The Netherlands and Germany have shorter work weeks than Britain and the U.S., yet their economies are as strong or stronger," she said.

One issue that is easy to see is that some people can't afford to work fewer hours, because they don't make much money to start with. However, Legg said that issue has to be addressed separately. She said people her organization has spoken to have said they'd be happy to make 20 percent less to have 20 percent more free time, but earnings does get brought up as an issue. "There are of course people who are currently underpaid and therefore would struggle to reduce their hours," she said. "That’s why the New Economics Foundation argues strongly that a transition to a shorter working week—which we think is essential—must go hand in hand with action to address low pay."