The Swedish 6-Hour Workday Experiment: A Brilliant Idea or Not?

sweden

Huffington Post reports of an unusual experiment going on in Sweden at the moment. A test group of government workers will scale back to work 6 hours per day, while a another group of participants will continue to work 8 hours per day.

The government wants to examine how shorter workdays influence productivity and sick days, and of course they hope to increase the first and lower the second. There is evidence to suggest that productivity decreases as work hours increase, so a 6-hour workday might be as productive as a 8-hour workday.

After a one year test period, the government will decide whether it the “6-hour workday program” has proven effective, and if so, they want to expand the program to other sectors of the governments.

But will this program turn out to be a success? A similar experiment has been conducted before:

“Another Swedish town, Kiruna, long ago decided to test out the six-hour workday. But the town decided to end the 16-year experiment in 2005 after some complained that a compressed workweek actually put more pressure on workers who struggled to increase the pace of their work.” (Huffington Post).

Even though this experiment ended, the idea of a 6-hour workday sounds appealing: a 6-hour workday leaves more room for leisure-time activities which we know bring much joy and happiness, and it leaves room for mental downtime, i.e. mental breaks from the external world.

Mental breaks allow us to unplug and recharge our brains. Research suggests that mental downtime is associated with various positive psychological outcomes.

A four-year study by Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter found that scheduled time off (mental downtime) increased work satisfaction, and employees were more content with their work–life balance and prouder of their work accomplishments.

Do we need to rest our brains? Research shows that sleep is important for memory and learning potential. When we are asleep, our memory makes sense of information which helps us store and learn new material.

Also, naps of 10, 20 and 30 minutes can sharpen our concentration: 10-minute naps, compared to 20 and 30 minutes naps, are particularly effective as they do not result in grogginess after the naps (Brooks & Lack, 2006).

Mindfulness is a state of mind that is much different from the state of mind we are in at work. We know that mindfulness can decrease stress and depression and improve mental well-being. Furthermore, one study found that mindfulness meditation makes the brain a more efficient problem-solver.

The rationale behind a 6-hour workday is probably that people need fewer breaks when the workday is shorter: When people take breaks, they spend much (unproductive) time getting back to the state of mind they were in before the break.

For this reason, productivity per hour increases when people take fewer (scheduled) breaks, but a possible downside to a shorter workday is time pressure, and possibly stress.

In this article, I have assumed that a 6-hour workday, compared to a 8-hour workday, leaves more room for mental downtime, but in fact, it is difficult to tell whether this is the case or not. Anyway, in about one year, we will know whether the experiment was worthwhile, and I am looking forward to it!

Photo: Susanne Davidson
  • Andy

    Interesting article!

    I remember talking to some american friends of mine about how 10 hour workdays are not at all uncommon in the states. I’ve heard it said that the work culture there is more relaxed than in Nordic countries (i.e the workers are slightly less productive). And it’s clear from the charts you linked to that they do currently have longer workdays.

    It might be fun to explore differences between American work places and Swedish work places once the experiment is well under way. Since they are such different extremes.