Futurists from a century ago would be disappointed in some regards with how society has progressed. Where are the flying cars? What about the moon colonies? Perhaps most importantly, how come the workday is still so drearily long?
Automation is at an all-time high and technological advances have made us more productive than we’ve ever been. Despite those big breakthroughs, the United States’s 34.4-hour workweek ranks 16th highest out of 36 developed countries. Those hours are less than what you probably work in a given week, as they factor in vacation time and holidays.
Shouldn’t one of the most prosperous countries in the world be afforded shorter working hours and more leisure time?
Before the Great Depression occurred, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek that leaves people with more than enough time to pursue their interests. Preeminent futurist Herman Kahn wrote back in 1967 that Americans would enjoy a 30-hour workweek and 13 weeks of annual vacation time by the year 2000.
Neither of those predictions came true, but there’s some hope of reaching this utopian ideal in Sweden. Organizations there have been experimenting with a six-hour workday for decades now. Results of a new study show exactly how successful the shortened work schedule can be both for productivity and work satisfaction.
For these reasons and more, it’s time for the U.S. looks overseas to Sweden for some inspiration.
Sweden first began studying the idea of a six-hour workweek back in the early 1990s with home care service worker in one region. The experiment ran for years, but researchers couldn’t find any conclusive data about a productivity increase. The shortened workweek was eventually scrapped for these employees. However, the idea of working fewer hours stuck.
A new study released earlier this year has much more promising and definite results. Beginning February 2015, nurses in a Swedish retirement home had their workday reduced to six hours but kept the same wages
This tightly controlled study, which concluded a year later, found that productivity was higher than before. Staffers were much more likely to come into work, and the lack of sick days made up for half the additional cost of hiring 16 additional nurses. The nurses were 2.8 times less likely to take time off and they spent more time doing activities with seniors.
All Industries Can Make it Work
Managers everywhere probably think that the idea of a shorter workweek sounds great on paper, but just wouldn’t work in their company or industry. While Sweden is a smallish country, the shorter workweeks have been successful beyond nursing homes.
A Toyota service center in the city of Gothenberg reduced hours more than a decade ago and has no plans of shifting back to the longer workweek. One manager says that staff turnover is low, recruitment is easy, capital costs are down and, “everyone is happy.”
White collar jobs can also benefit. Brath, a Stockholm-based SEO startup, implemented six-hour days when they first launched several years ago. The founder wrote that acquiring and retaining talent is easy thanks to the short workday policy. He also says that the six-hour days improves creativity and ensures that everyone’s mind stays fresh.
A Happier Workforce
An obvious result of a shorter workday is that employees are happier. That happiness directly translates to gains in productivity. In the experiment conducted in the Swedish nursing home, absences and sick days were way down. The nurses reported being much less stress and researchers found a 20 percent increase in happiness. Their energy was much higher, both at work and at home.
As managers in Sweden discovered, a happy workforce is a reliable one. Employers take less time off and are much easier to retain. For some bosses, those benefits make up for the additional cost needed to hire more people.
It’s Already Being Done on a Small Scale
Short workdays aren’t too common in the U.S., but employers are experimenting with ways to increase productivity and give employees more free time. The freedom to occasionally work from home is on the rise. Similarly, 43 percent of organizations report allowing employees to work more hours during the week in order to enjoy a three-day weekend.
Those aren’t the same as the glorious six-hour workday, but they are steps in the right direction.
It’s a Challenge Worth Undertaking
The United States is a proud nation of workaholics and is already one of the most productive countries on the planet. The traditional work culture can’t be changed overnight. Furthermore, some experts warn that shortening the workweek just isn’t feasible on a grand scale. Even some employers in Sweden don’t think they’d be able to implement the shorter workdays due to financial reasons.
Making the short workweek a reality won’t be simple, but it’s time that the U.S. began trying in earnest to see how it works. As President John F. Kennedy said about U.S.’s plan to go to the moon; we do things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Those forecasters of a century ago might have gotten a lot of things wrong when they predicted life in the 21st century, but their dreams of a shorter workweek and more time for leisure are tangible. Hopefully, their predictions will come true at least in this one regard.