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OM in the News: Happiness From a Shorter Workweek Can’t Overcome Costs

January 14, 2017
A Swedish nurse says the 6-hour workday raised her efficiency

A Swedish nurse says the 6-hour workday raised her efficiency

A controversial experiment with a 6-hour workday in Sweden just wrapped up with a cheerful conclusion: Shorter working hours make for happier, healthier and more productive employees. “There’s just one catch,” writes The New York Times (Jan. 7, 2017). “The practice is too expensive and unwieldy to become widespread in Sweden anytime soon.”

The 2-year trial centered on a retirement home where workers were switched to a 6-hour day, from 8 hours, with no pay cut. Seventeen new nursing positions were created to make up for the loss of time at a cost of $738,000 a year.

The experiment stoked discussion about whether investing in a better work-life balance for employees benefits the bottom line for companies. But the high price tag and political skepticism are likely to discourage widespread support for taking the concept nationwide. While a growing number of countries and companies are studying the concept of employee happiness, the idea of improving it through shorter work hours has by no means gained broad traction. A similar model in France has been controversial for more than 15 years, ever since a Socialist government made a 35-hour workweek mandatory. Companies of all sizes in France have complained repeatedly that the short workweek has damaged competitiveness and generated billions in additional costs.

In the Swedish experiment, employees reported working with greater efficiency and energy when their hours were cut. They called in sick 15% less than before and perceived their health to have improved 20%. The program increased costs by 22%, mostly to pay for new employees. However 10% was offset by reduced costs to the state from people being taken off the unemployment rolls and paying taxes into the system.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Do your students believe “we should work to live, or live to work?”
  2. What are some companies in the U.S. doing to improve working conditions?
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