Can a move to a six-hour workday increase productivity and the happiness quotient of employees and their families and at the same time increase productivity and company profits? In the U.S., more than 60 years after workers, through their unions, began organizing for an eight-hour day in the 1860s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 for all workers to see limits on working hours – initially, it was set at 44 hours a week, then reduced to 42 hours, and by 1940 the workweek was reduced to 40 hours.
Some businesses in Sweden have experimented with a six-hour workday with the hope of getting more accomplished in a shorter amount of time and ensure that employees have the energy to enjoy their private lives. This change is purely experimental—one that has not been mandated by law nor implemented nationwide.
A Toyota vehicle service center in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, moved to shorter days fifteen years ago. The service center reported a happier staff, a lower turnover rate, and an increase in profits during that time. The new system keeps the garages open longer and generates new business. Employees are doing the same amount in the six-hour workday, often more than they did in the eight- hour day. The service center reports that employees have more stamina to do this heavy work, and they have seen greater profits and customers because cars are getting fixed faster.
A high-profile case is the publicly funded Svartedalens nursing home in west Sweden. They began a trial a six-hour day to determine if the cost of hiring additional staff members to cover the hours lost, was worth the improvements to patient care and the boosting of employees’ morale. The nursing home had 80 nurses working six-hour shifts (maintaining their eight-hour salaries) while 80 staffers at another nursing home worked their standard hours. Halfway through the test period, the nursing home with the six-hour workday had half the average sick leave, the nurses were happier, and the care was better. The study, however, equates productivity with a quality of care, which doesn’t necessarily translate to white-collar work.
Several startup companies announced that they are testing the concept. The companies include Background AB, a creative communication agency in Falun, Dalarna and Filimundus, an app developer based in Stockholm. Linus Feldt, Filimundus CEO believes that staying focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. During an eight or more hour workday, employees take frequent breaks and look for distractions and diversions such as social media to make the workday more endurable. With the six-hour workday, staff members at Filimundus are not allowed on social media, meetings are kept to a minimum, and the company does it’s best to eliminate other unproductive distractions.
Most of the companies who have made the shift to the six-hour workday have reported a positive impact, from increased efficiency to better communication and fewer staff sick days. A 2014 Stanford University research paper found a “non-linear” relationship between hours worked and productivity, as well as too much work, can impinge productivity. According to a study by the Families and Work Institute, overworked employees make more mistakes. Research has shown that condensing work into more efficient hours is very unlikely to hurt productivity. There is no need to lower pay and in fact, companies are likely to save money through less sick and personal leave, less stress leading to better health, and lower turnover costs.
The six-hour workday would be less acceptable in the U.S. because the eight-plus hour workday ethic is so deeply embedded in our culture. According to Gallup’s 2014 poll, full-time employees in the U.S. work an average of 47 hours per week. However, even with encouraging results, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will shift to shorter days any time soon. The rest of the world (outside of Europe) a 40-hour workweek would be a very nice improvement as well.
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