Let’s just admit it. Most of us hate our jobs. Only about 31% of Americans feel “enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace”. Even for people who do get to work doing something they enjoy, the idea of doing it for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for the rest of our lives can feel like an early death sentence.
One country has decided to do something about it. Sweden, in keeping with their history of progressive social policy, has begun the shift to a 6 hour work day, with many of their largest employers already implementing the stress-reducing policy — and loving the results.
Linus Feldt, who heads up a large Scandinavian app development firm, Filimundus, had this to say:
“To stay focused on a specific work task for 8 hours is a huge challenge. In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the work day more endurable. At the same time, we are finding it hard to manage our private life outside of work. We want to spend more time with our families, we want to learn new things or exercise more. I wanted to see if there could be a way to mix these things.”
It’s Not Just Possible, It’s Necessary
In places like North America, the idea of the 8 hour workday is so entrenched that it seems like physics, an unavoidable fact of life, but nothing could be further from the truth.
When Henry Ford introduced the 8 hour workday at all of his factories in 1914, just 100 years ago, he faced a similar sort of skepticism that reducing from 10-16 hour work days was even possible. That, however, was quickly overcome as the success and benefits of his decision became obvious, and others started copying his methods.
One thing that our time has in common with Ford’s, is that labor saving devices are rapidly moving into many sectors of the economy. Self-driving cars, touch-screen kiosks, automated restaurants, warehouse robots, and many more advances are making it so that there is simply less stuff for people to do. Which is a very good thing, or can be, if we organize so that people can work less, rather than simply accepting ever increasing unemployment.
Eminent philosopher, mathematician, and social critic Bertrand Russell argued in his 1932 essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’, that we should actually switch to a 4 hour workday, saying:
“If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment — assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure.”
The benefits of a shortened work day are numerous and varied, and are something we should all take note of:
Reduced Stress, Better Health
A recent Lancet Study that looked at over 600,000 people found that the more we work, the more likely we are to have a stroke! People who worked 41-48 hours per week had a 10% higher chance of getting a stroke than people who worked 35-40 hours, and people who worked more than 55 hours chances were 33% higher! They also had an increased risk of coronary artery disease.
“If your staff is happy, your company is happy.”
This makes sense because both heart disease and stroke are tied to stress, and if there’s one that causes stress, it’s work. Especially working long hours. Also, unless we are over 50, chances are that our work requires us to get up earlier than we should, and proper sleep is essential to good health and effective stress management. Coupled with what might be a long commute, after work errands, and eating / preparing meals, often all we have time for at the end of the day is zoning out in front of our TV, resting up in preparation to do it all again.
Another Swedish workplace that has made the switch is Svartedalens Care Home in Gothenburg. “There is a lot of illness and depression among staff in the care sector because of exhaustion” says Ann-Charlotte Dahlbom Larsson, head of elderly care. “The lack of balance between work and life is not good for anyone.”
“I used to be exhausted all the time,” Lise-Lotte Pettersson, a nurse at the home, says. “I would come home from work and pass out on the sofa, but not now. I am much more alert: I have much more energy for my work, and also for family life.”
A 2002 study at the University of Maryland demonstrated what we all instinctively know, finding that “long hours at work increase work-family conflict and that this conflict is in turn related to depression and other stress-related health problems.”
Having quality time to spend with our friends and family can feel like a luxury when the treadmill of the 8 hour workday rules our lives. The absence of that quality time can come at the cost of our precious connections to the ones we love, and having two more hours in a day can make a huge difference.
Toyota Service Centers in Gothenburg made the switch to the 6-hour work day almost 13 years ago, moving from a 7am – 4pm workday to using two 6-hour shifts, at full pay. This allows Sandra Andersson, 25, to hold down a ‘full time’ job, and also spend quality time with her family.
“Before I started a family I could go to the beach after work – now I can spend the afternoon with my baby,” she said.
The 6-hour work day would be a massive boon to overstressed, overworked families in many countries.
The idea that a shorter work day could maintain, let alone actually increase, productivity might sound far fetched, but there is reason to believe this intuition may be fundamentally incorrect. Roland Paulsen, who studies business administration at the University of Lund, points out that history shows consistent increases in productivity, coupled with decreases in work. For over a century, our amount of work steadily decreased, and it’s only recently that trend has reversed.
“History shows consistent increases in productivity, coupled with decreases in work.”
“Productivity has doubled since the 1970s,” he says, “so technically we even have the potential for a four-hour working day. It is a question of how these productivity gains are distributed. It did not used to be utopian to cut working hours – we have done this before.”
Linus Feldt, CEO of Filimundus, had this to say: “My impression now [that we have a 6-hour work day] is that it is easier to focus more intensely on the work that needs to be done, and you have the stamina to do it, and still have energy left when leaving the office.”
When Henry Ford introduced the 8-hour workday in 1914, against great skepticism, what actually happened was that these same workers, in less time, produced greater output. Ford’s profit margins had doubled within two years.
This one is kind of a no-brainer. It’s pretty likely that most of us would be happier at our jobs if we didn’t have to spend so much time there! People who aren’t stressed, who are in better health, and have better relationships at home, are going to be happier employees, better employees.
“The biggest response that I couldn’t foresee was the energy level I felt with my colleagues,” says Linus Feldt. “They were happy leaving the office and happy coming back the next day. They didn’t feel drained or fatigued.
“Going from an eight-hour day to six has helped us spread the message that we invest in our staff. That we believe that a happy staff is the absolute top priority for a successful company. If your staff is happy, your company is happy.”
More Time to Live Life
Perhaps the most important benefit of reducing the work day to just 6 hours is that it will give us all back precious hours of our lives, to follow our passions, pursue our hobbies, enrich our relationships, or even just to be idle.
Idleness often gets a bad wrap, and so I’ll leave it to Bertand Russell to cover this one:
“Without a considerable amount of leisure, a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.
“It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.
“The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.”
These ‘active pleasures’ he’s talking about include all the kinds of things we would be doing, if only we had the time.
If we take a serious look at what Sweden is doing, maybe, in the not too distant future, we will have the time.