This makes complete sense: If we could work less but earn the same salary, we’d have more emotional and financial resources to spend with our families (or adorable pets!), engaging in personal hobbies, or doing wellness activities that improve health and happiness. After all, if you’ve ever known someone who’s transformed from human being into “10-hour-workday-stress-drone,” you know they’re not exactly functioning at 100 percent.
The latest bit of evidence suggesting that less (work) may be more is a real-world study written up this month in The New York Times. The study chronicled a Swedish city's experiment with six-hour workdays, in an attempt to create an improved quality of life for local hospital workers. The results were predictably amazing.
“Arturo Perez used to come home frazzled from his job as a caregiver at the Svartedalens nursing home,” writes journalist Liz Alderman in the Times. “Eight-hour stretches of tending to residents with senility or Alzheimer’s would leave him sapped with little time to spend with his three children.”
“But life changed when Svartedalens was selected for a Swedish experiment about the future of work. In a bid to improve well being, employees were switched to a six-hour workday last year with no pay cut. Within a week, Mr. Perez was brimming with energy, and residents said the standard of care was higher.”
It should be noted that Sweden has a history of supporting work/life balance for its residents. The nation currently guarantees a generous maternity (and paternity) leave and at least three weeks of paid vacation time—two benefits currently denied most Americans. Here, the average work week clocks out at 47+ hours, according to a 2014 Gallop poll. And this figure only takes into account full-time, salaried workers—but for minimum wage workers who are frequently forced to take on multiple jobs to support their families, the average work week can be much, much longer.
According to data collected in 2015 by Staples Advantage and WorkPlaceTrends, an HR-focused research firm, 53 percent of American workers are burned out. There’s been a lot of derogatory talk in this election cycle centered on how Bernie Sanders “wants to turn America into Sweden,” with socialized medicine, equitable pay, and guaranteed human rights. But seeing how Sweden has taken care of its citizens and is working to create a system that’s not just fairer to its most marginalized workers but allows them to thrive—well, to quote Sanders “What’s wrong with America looking more like Scandinavia?"
Even in a country like Sweden, with a legacy of “health is wealth,” the study has still surprised business leaders and managers. Both doctors and patients at Svartedalens say they’ve benefited from the experiment. Caretakers say they’re averting burn out while patients feel they’re receiving superior care. By mid-April of 2016, the program’s creators concluded that it had “sharply reduced absenteeism, and improved productivity and worker health.”
This success has re-invigorated an ongoing debate in Sweden on the importance of balance. The country, whose population registers at a scant 9.5 million, has been looking into ways it can keep the country thriving through the next 40 years, and higher employee satisfaction could be the ticket. According to a 2015 article in The Guardian, as the rest of Europe’s population shrinks to an almost alarming degree, Scandinavia has stayed vital due in part to “generous parental leave systems, stable economies, and"—are you listening, Donald Trump?—“in the cases of Sweden and Norway, high net immigration.” It seems that Sweden is doing something right.
And TBH, Sweden's six-hour workday experiment is not as radical as it may sound. In the U.S., productivity experts have thrown around the idea of a four-hour work week for years, and several companies have introduced “flexible offices” that allow employees to choose their hours (within reason) and work remotely. While this perk may be in closer reach for higher income workers in this country, it's a step in the right direction.
In Sweden, many start-ups have been experimenting with unique work structures for some time. “We thought doing a shorter workweek would mean we’d have to hire more, but it hasn’t resulted in that because everyone works more efficiently,” says Maria Brath in the Times article. Brath is the founder of the Internet search optimization start-up Brath.com in Stockholm, which operates on a six-hour day. Meanwhile, the company, at just 20 employees, has “doubled its revenue and profit each year” because “If you have only six hours to work, you don’t waste your time or other people’s time.”
Of course, implementing a six-hour workday in larger companies, never mind larger countries, may prove hairier. Scandinavia has a running lead, with its history of providing a strong social-safety net, a smaller population, and a level of political stability. In other parts of the world more driven by capitalistic demands than Scandinavia, there is an unspoken contract that workers need to clock the hours to stay “competitive”—regardless of whether these hours, often spent in unnecessary meetings or on email—actually provide a better product.
The Swedish study's model would also require workplaces to take a gamble on potentially higher costs and initial losses before they saw a return on their investment, which many would presumably be reluctant to take. But at the end of the day, what if the idea of “more work = more output” was just a myth?
“For years, we’ve been told that an eight-hour workday is optimal,” Anders Hyltander, executive director at Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska University Hospital, one of Europe’s largest hospitals and another participant in this experiment, told the Times. “But I think we should let ourselves challenge that view and say, ‘Yes that’s the way it is now, but if you want to increase productivity, be open to new ideas.’”
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.