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Sweden’s six-hour day: does it work?

The Swedish city of Gothenburg has trialled six-hour working days in some of its elderly care homes

Sweden’s six-hour day: does it work?

Sweden has been experimenting with six-hour days, with workers putting in fewer hours on full pay. How has it gone?

Sweden’s six-hour day: does it work?

Emilie Telander cheers as one of the day patients at an elderly care home in Gothenburg manages to roll a six in a game of Ludo.

But the 26-year-old nurse’s smile fades as she describes her own luck running out at the end of last year. After 23 months of six-hour shifts, she was ordered back to eight-hour days, the BBC reports.

“I am more tired than I was before,” she reflects, adding she has less time at home to cook or read with her four-year-old daughter.

“During the trial all the staff had more energy. I could see that everybody was happy.”

Ms Telander is one of about 70 nurses who had their days shortened for the experiment, one of several trials in Sweden involving employers from start-ups to nursing homes.

Designed to measure wellbeing in a sector that’s struggling to recruit enough staff to care for the country’s ageing population, extra nurses were brought in to cover the lost hours.

The project’s independent researchers also studied employees at a similar care home who continued to work regular days.

Their final report is due out next month, but data released so far strongly backs Ms Telander’s arguments.

During the first 18 months of the trial the nurses working shorter hours logged less sick leave, reported better perceived health and boosted their productivity by organising 85% more activities for their patients, from nature walks to singalongs.

However, the project faced tough criticism from those concerned the costs outweighed the benefits.

Centre-right opponents filed a motion calling on Gothenburg City Council to wrap it up prematurely last May, arguing it was unfair to continue investing taxpayers’ money in a pilot that was not economically sustainable.

The trial managed to stay within budget, costing the city about $NZ1.9m / $A1.8m.

“Could we do this for the entire municipality? The answer is no, it will be too expensive,” says Daniel Bernmar, the Left Party councillor responsible for Gothenburg’s elderly care.

But he argues the experiment still proved “successful from many points of view” by creating extra jobs for 17 nurses in the city, reducing sick pay costs and fuelling global debates about work culture.

“It’s put the shortening of the work day on the agenda both for Sweden and for Europe, which is fascinating,” he says.

“In the past 10, 15 years there’s been a lot of pressure on people working longer hours and this is the contrary of that.”

While work-life balance is championed across the political spectrum in Sweden, chances of trimming back the 40-hour week remain slim.

The Left Party is the only parliamentary party in favour of shortening basic working hours, backed by just 6% of voters in Sweden’s last election.

Nevertheless, a cluster of other municipalities are following Gothenburg, with locally funded trials targeting other groups of employees with high levels of illness and burnout, including social workers and hospital nurses.

There have also been trials in the private sector, with advertising, consulting, telecoms and technology firms testing the concept.

While some have also reported staff appear calmer or are less likely to phone in sick, others have swiftly abandoned the idea.

“I really don’t think that the six-hour day fits with an entrepreneurial world, or the start-up world,” argues Erik Gatenholm, chief executive of Gothenburg-based bio-ink company.

Its experiment was ditched in less than a month after feedback from employees.

Dr Aram Seddigh at Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute suggests the six-hour work day would be most effective in organisations – such as hospitals – where you work for six hours, then leave [the workplace] and go home.

“It might be less effective for organisations where the borders between work and private life are not so clear,” he suggests.

Bengt Lorentzon, lead researcher at Telander’s care home project, argues the concept jars with the strong culture of flexible working promoted by many Swedish businesses.

“I don’t think people should start with the question of whether or not to have reduced hours.

“First, it should be: what can we do to make the working environment better? And maybe different things can be better for different groups.

“It could be to do with working hours and working times, but it could be a lot of other things as well.”

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