Experiments in six-hour days

The Guardian reports on experiments in Sweden to shorten the workday, in an effort to get higher-quality work and reduce turnover. In the Svartedalens care home, a Gothenburg nursing home, for example, nurses are experimenting with six-hour rather than eight-hour shifts.

Ann-Charlotte Dahlbom Larsson, head of elderly care at the home, says staff wellbeing is better and the standard of care is even higher.

“Since the 1990s we have had more work and fewer people – we can’t do it any more,” she says. “There is a lot of illness and depression among staff in the care sector because of exhaustion – the lack of balance between work and life is not good for anyone.”

Pettersson, one of 82 nurses at Svartedalens, agrees. Caring for elderly people, some of whom have dementia, demands constant vigilance and creativity, and with a six-hour day she can sustain a higher standard of care. “You cannot allow elderly people to become stressed, otherwise it turns into a bad day for everyone,” she says.

Toyota service centres in the city have been working six-hour days for more than a decade. Managing director Martin Banck recalls that

Customers were unhappy with long waiting times, while staff were stressed and making mistakes… [Under the six-hour day,]  “Staff feel better, there is low turnover and it is easier to recruit new people,” Banck says. “They have a shorter travel time to work, there is more efficient use of the machines and lower capital costs – everyone is happy.”

Also, “Profits have risen by 25%, he adds.”

These kinds of schemes tend to be expensive, but proponents say that the improvement in quality of service is worth the cost– which is one reason you see these experiments in service industries and jobs that require high levels of focus, a ability to improvise, patience and resilience, and other psychological resources that can be eroded by long working hours.

It’s not just service companies that are finding success with shorter hours: several software companies have, too. The Swedish SEO company Brath has also implemented a six-hour day, and it’s interesting to read their defense of it. They make several points:

  • “Hiring and keeping talent is if not the most so at least one of the most critical tasks for any growing company.”
  • The policy shows that “we actually care about our employees, we care enough to prioritize their time with the family, cooking or doing something else they love doing.”
  • “Another big benefit is that our employees produce more than similar companies do. We obviously measure this. It hasn’t happened by itself, we’ve been working on this from the start. Today we get more done in 6 hours than comparable companies do in 8. We believe it comes with the high level of creativity demanded in this line of work. We believe nobody can be creative and productive in 8 hours straight.”
  • “A third huge reason for shorter days is that we all feel more rested. Obviously we too have to stay late at times, obviously we too are stressed at times but it’s from a better base line.”

Another software company, Filimundus, has adopted a six-hour day. CEO Linus Feldt says:

“Today I believe that time is more valuable than money…. And it is a strong motivational factor to be able to go home two hours earlier. You still want to do a good job and be productive during six hours, so I think you focus more and are more efficient.”

This runs directly counter to several trends in employment and workplace management, as people like Peter Fleming would point out. We assume that keeping people in the office longer automatically translates into higher levels of production, and that it’s better to have a smaller number of overworked employees than a larger number who work more reasonable hours. These places show that, properly managed, a transition to shorter hours can be better for everyone.

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