Can Sweden make the case for a 6-hour workday?

From tech start-ups to nursing homes, Sweden is experimenting with less time at work.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Commuters make their way home at the end of the workday in Gamla Stan in Stockholm, Sweden, on March 11, 2014.

Sweden, birthplace of ABBA, IKEA, and Volvo, may soon have another celebrated export: the 6-hour workday.

The practice is not yet universal, but companies across multiple sectors report positive results from the shorter day.

Brath, a tech startup, made the move three years ago for its 22 employees. Maria Bråth, the CEO, says her firm has tracked productivity and found that her team exceeds output when compared to similar tech shops. One of the biggest advantages is that it helps them hire and keep employees, Ms. Brath writes in a blog post:

We also believe that once you’ve gotten used to having time for the family, picking up the kids at daycare, spending time training for a race or simply just cooking good food at home, you don’t want to lose that again. We believe that this is a good reason to stay with us and not only because of the actual impact longer hours would make in your life but for the reason behind our shorter days.... We actually care about our employees.

"I think the eight-hour workday is not as effective as one would think," says Linus Feldt, CEO of Stockholm-based app developer Filimundus, which adopted the 6-a-day practice last year, in an interview with Fast Company. "To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge."

He continued, "In order to cope [with an eight-hour shift], we mix in things and pauses to make the workday more endurable. At the same time, we are having 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."

Mr. Feldt adds that the change hasn't really made a major difference in how people work. The leadership team just asked people to stay off social media and personal distractions, and eliminated some standard weekly meetings, according to Fast Company.

Shorter days aren't limited to the tech sector. Toyota service centers in Gothenburg changed from one nine-hour workday to two six-hour shifts 13 years ago, while maintaining full salaries but cutting break times. Prior to making the change, employees reported burnout and customers complained of long wait times. Since making the switch, the shops "haven’t looked back," The Guardian reports.

Employees in Sweden's public sector, particularly in nursing, have experimented with fewer hours as well. In a recent experiment, nurses at a government-run retirement home were able to switch to a six-hour day for the same pay. In that case, it did cost more money, but the costs were offset by better care for patients because nurses were less exhausted, the study found.

Recent decades have seen several other experiments with the six-hour day for a full wage in Sweden. In Kiruna, a mining town in the far north, home care for the elderly moved to a six-hour day in 1989 so the working lives of female carergivers would better correlate with those of their husbands in the mines, according to The Guardian. When a new political administration took over in 2005, they ended the initiative, citing costs.

After a century in which working hours were gradually reduced, holidays increased, and retirement reached earlier, recent years have seen an increase in hours worked for the first time in history, says Roland Paulsen, a business researcher at the University of Lund. 

"Politicians have been competing to say we must create more jobs with longer hours – work has become an end in itself," Mr. Paulson says. "But productivity has doubled since the 1970s, so technically we even have the potential for a four-hour working day."

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