The effectiveness of the traditional eight-hour workday has long been questioned.
In Sweden, some have opted to reduce daily hours to six – and supporters claim its boosted productivity and motivation.
But at what cost? insiders investigates whether a shorter workday can actually bring big gains for employees and employers.
The happy caregiver
Arturo Perez always arrives at work with a smile. He has been a caregiver at the Svartedalens nursing home, near Gothenburg in Sweden, for more than 20 years now.
His specialty: helping people suffering from Alzheimer’s – a task that has long been challenging.
His life changed last year, when he was selected to be part of a working time reorganisation experiment.
“I’m not as stressed out as I was before. I’ve met new colleagues. We help each other better plan our work, and we work with more joy,” he told insiders.
“I’m also in charge of young children, as a single father. Now I no longer have to pressure them in the morning, to go to school. Everything is much more relaxed.
“I think I’ve become a better dad, as well as being a better caregiver.”
The working hours of the home’s 82 caregivers were shortened from eight to six hours, for the same salary.
It is part of a programme mentored by the municipality of Gothenburg.
Employees are said to have gained a lot in terms of energy and efficiency – and are more available to the residents.
“The atmosphere is more relaxed. We have many people here who suffer from dementia. Before, when there was too much stress around, it made them very nervous.. Now they are clearly more peaceful,” explained Monica Axhede, Director of the Svartedalens Nursing Home.
“In addition we hired more staff, we created jobs. And we have a lot less sick leave.”
A political hot potato
Euronews’ Valerie Gauriat reported: “Gothenburg is Sweden’s second largest city. It is also one of those that shows the highest rates of sick absenteeism and burnout at work. The six-hour day is one of the ways to try to address that. It’s also a very political issue here.”
Launched as an initiative of the former left-wing majority in the municipality of Gothenburg, the experiment at the Svartedalens nursing home is due to end this winter.
Deputy mayor Maria Ryden, leader of the new right-wing majority at the City Council, is strongly against any extension or generalisation of the programme.
“We are responsible for 53,000 employees in Göteborg. So if we should let all these 53,000 employees work 6 hours and get paid for 8 hours…you do the maths!” she said.
“We have a huge challenge in the future to recruit more personnel. So if we just pay personnel for not working, there won’t be any money to recruit new personnel. We need more hands, we need more people to go to work, and we even need to work longer!”
The experience, when launched, represented a 20 percent increase in costs for the municipality.
Daniel Bernmar, deputy mayor and leader of the Left Party at the city council, admits that.
But he says benefits have to be measured over the long term.
“Looking at the public economy as a whole, we create more jobs, we have a lower sick leave rate, and we have a perceived higher quality of care,” he said.
“So when looking at the costs side, that halves the cost. For me it’s a natural step to look at how we can improve the work environment and possibly get a more sustainable labour market where people work longer rather and feel better about working than they do today.”
Car company revs up staff
Reducing working hours can also be profitable in the short term.
That has been the case for one car dealer and service centre in Gothenburg for almost 15 years now.
Of 112 employees, 35 of them, with the most physically demanding jobs, went from eight to six hours a day, without a pay cut.
And the centre’s manager has never looked back.
“We started in 2002 because we had a long waiting time for our customers and we wanted to have a shorter waiting time,” explained Martin Banck, CEO of the Toyota Centre Gothenburg.
“We have doubled the number of people in our workshops, but we have also increased our sales and our profit. It’s better opening hours, and we have more customers because of that. It’s a win-win for us, for the company and the customers.”
Sales jumped 25 percent in the first year, before stabilising.
The cost of additional hiring was largely muted, and workers can even net bonuses for good performance.
Satisfaction levels run high.
“I guess we are more efficient working six hours instead of eight. We basically get the same jobs done, while working six hours. I’ve got so much time I can do many things,” said Magnue Wikstrom, a technician at the Toyota centre.
“I can go and work out, I can go shopping and still be home by three o’clock, and I’m done for the day. So it’s good for me. I wouldn’t get back to working eight hours, not even with a greater pay, I would still stay with six hours, if I could get the chance”
Hospital sees benefits
The orthopaedic surgery department at Gothenburg University Hospital used to feature high rates of burnout and sick leave. It opted for shorter working days a year and a half ago.
Euronews’ Valerie Gauriat reported: “Our appointment was nearly cancelled at the last minute. Days might only last six hours, but they’re intensive; the unit is overwhelmed with work today.”
The unit’s seven operation wards handle some forty patients per day.
Teams have been reinforced. A hundred people work full-time, organised in two shifts.
“My life is easier now because i have a fully staffed ward here. Earlier we had a lot of rented nurses, and we often had to close operation rooms. We increased the hours by about two-and-a-half-hours per operation theatre, operation ward. So it’s quite a lot of hours we can do more now,” said Marina Henriksson, Manager of the orthopaedic surgery unit at Sahlgrenska University Hospital.
In fact, surgery has increased by 20 percent.
The cost of recruitment should be balanced out in the next few months, we are told. For the teams, the benefits are clear.
“I get time to rest and to work out, which I have to do to be able to do my work and not get injured,” said Karin Bengtsson, an operating room nurse.
“And you don’t have to do a lot of reporting to your colleagues, you don’t need to go away for your lunch break. So you can just come here work six hours straight, and then you’re finished.”
The change of work patterns also echoes new aspirations, for the societies of tomorrow.
“Young people today they don’t look at work in the same way as our parents did… Nowadays maybe we don’t see the most important thing in in my life is my work,” said Matilda Palenius, a nurse anesthetist at the hospital.
“You want to do stuff in your spare time and that is who you are, more than the work.”