Sweden’s six-hour work day spawned positive results for its employees, but is it as simple as that? Is it even feasible?
In Sweden, a nursing home committed to a two-year experiment, which shortened the work day of its nurses to six hours without reducing their salaries.
The results were overwhelmingly positive. The staff was healthier, there was a reduction in sick-leave absence and patient care in the nursing home improved.
However, the reduction in hours meant an extra 17 staff members needed to be hired during the project, meaning the cost of implementing a general six-hour work day permanently outweighed the benefits.
After the initial global excitement at the idea of a shorter work day, it seemed the lack of feasibility brought us all back to reality. But was this ever going to be a transferable plan?
A recent report in America looked at what we know and, more importantly, what we don’t know about long working hours and the effects they have on us.
While it has been widely accepted that longer working hours have a negative effect on the health and wellbeing of employees, this is not always conclusive.
Of course, there are direct correlations with particularly long hours and things like coronary heart disease, but a lot of other factors come into play that might skew the simple conclusion that longer hours equals an unhealthy employee.
“A lot of working hour impacts are going to vary depending on your age, your gender and also on the working conditions,” says Dr Caroline Murphy, a lecturer in employment relations at the Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick (UL).
Salaries need to be protected
Murphy believes there is a lot more that goes into an employee’s wellbeing than shorter working hours. “Making sure that income is protected as well as working hours being reduced is hugely important.”
A critical problem with transferring Sweden’s six-hour work day to other countries is a possible reduction in salaries. While Sweden’s trial didn’t reduce salaries, this was one of the major problems with the cost of the project.
Murphy was part of a team at UL that worked on a report, which looked at the effects of zero-hour contracts on employees and employers.
The report highlighted the negative impacts that come with zero-hour contracts, such as unstable income and unpredictable hours.
“Studies suggest that variability in working hours have negative effects for employees’ wellbeing,” says Murphy.
Income and stability are two major factors that affect employees’ health and work life. The costly part of Sweden’s nursing home model was paying salaries that reflected eight-hour days, but only having staff for six-hour days.
Even if the shorter work day was transferable, it’s unlikely salaries would remain untouched, which would create further stress for the employees.
Murphy also says the six-hour work day from the Swedish model is “not necessarily transferable to every type of workforce.” The nature of certain types of work would lend itself to better outcomes than others.
Less office hours doesn’t mean less work
While a shorter work day might sound like bliss, it’s not actually that simple when it comes to improving your work-life balance.
Many countries in Europe have seen a decline in the number of working hours, but these working hours are actually just the ones logged in the office.
“We’re not necessarily thinking about all the additional work intensification that a lot of us may do now as a result of technology – the hours we don’t even think of as work,” says Murphy.
Technological advancements have seen an increase in employees shadow working. According to Murphy, this is “taking on tasks that are part of your role now that wouldn’t traditionally have been”. This includes booking flights and accommodation for work trips – things you can now do yourself that someone else would have done before.
Aside from small, extra tasks you now have to take on simply because you can, how often do you find yourself checking your work email outside of office hours?
“Your working day is actually extending through your connectivity with the workplace,” says Murphy. This means that work is still bleeding into your life outside the office.
This sort of blurred line is what led France to bring in the right to disconnect law, which came into effect at the start of the year.
Under this law, companies with more than 50 workers are obliged to create a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours where staff shouldn’t be expected to send or answer emails.
Flexibility is key
A digital switch-off after work doesn’t necessarily solve all of the problems, but it’s a good start. While a one-size-fits-all six-hour work day wouldn’t necessarily be the answer either, a move towards more flexible work hours will be the key to a happier workforce.
“[There is] a focus away from presenteeism,” says Murphy, referring to hours physically spent in the office versus actual productive hours.
She says flexible hours are becoming more available to the workforce, especially to office staff who can easily work off-site, but there is still a stigma, as well as employees feeling the need to be present at certain times in the day for meetings. “Flexibility is there, but the take-up of it and the use of it can sometimes be problematic.”
“What we often see that works, rather than shorter days, is compressed working weeks – so having a four-day week,” said Murphy, offering an alternative to the Swedish example.
Flexibility is important, but the report on zero-hour contracts proves that employees need to feel stable and secure in their jobs as well as having a steady income.
Sweden’s experiment definitely had the right idea in mind, but with the financial implications of maintaining salaries with less hours, the search for the perfect work-life balance continues.
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