Sweden: ‘six-hour days could positively reboot working life’

As a Swedish trial of shorter working days nears its end, one of the politicians who helped bring it about tells Positive News that the benefits outweigh the costs

For the past two years, care workers at the Svartedalens retirement home in Gothenburg, Sweden, have gone from working eight-hour days to six hours per day – for the same pay. The experiment formed part of Gothenburg City Council’s trial around work-life balance.

The project, the latest in a series of Swedish experiments with shorter working days, will end in February with an official report about it due for release in March. Some 17 new employees were hired over the course of the experiment costing the centre about 9.8 million SEK (£901,438) – a 22 per cent increase in gross cost.

But Daniel Bernmar, leader of the Left party group at Gothenburg City Council, told Positive News that the benefits of shorter working days appeared to be greater that the increased price tag.

Preliminary results suggest that the reduction in working hours led to around a 10 per cent reduction in sick leave and that the health of care workers also improved markedly. Employees reported an improvement in the quality of care they were able to give patients too. Staff said they had more time to take part in social activities with those in their care – such as playing games and walking outdoors – which was particularly beneficial to patients with dementia.

“It’s an exciting time to be a local government politician in Sweden,” Bernmar told Positive News. “In general, I feel that the experiment has been a success. We’ve shown the benefits and we’ve shown the costs of doing this type of work day, which was the project’s main aim.”

The experiment has made headlines around the world, as politicians and employers alike seek to negotiate the line between making money and efficiency, and people’s work-life balance.

“I think one of the reasons this was such a big piece of news internationally,” said Bernmar, “is that we are, in a way, presenting the complete opposite narrative of the need to work more and to work harder.

We are presenting the complete opposite narrative of the need to work more and to work harder

“In Sweden, our political narrative has long been that the economy is in bad shape, the labour market is in bad shape, we need to work more. For the national government, that has been a successful campaign in getting people to work longer hours and to do more overtime. So, when we said as a local government that we want to try and do the opposite, that we want to have a sustainable market, that had a rather big impact on people’s minds.”

Gothenburg’s Left party sees the experiment as a means to shift mindsets about what good working conditions are. But opponents have baulked at the financial cost.

As the results are being analysed in more detail, Bernmar and his team have already started to consider new experiments and projects to tackle poor working conditions. They are focusing in particular on Sweden’s social workers, a sector Bernmar says has been “totally ignored by politicians for a long time” there.

“What we lost in the 90s,” he said, “is that working hours are one part of working conditions like any others – pay or having a decent chair. It is just one piece of the puzzle but an important piece that we’ve ignored for 20 or 30 years.”

Working hours are one part of working conditions like any others – pay or having a decent chair

International and national interest in the concept of changing working hours appears to be mounting, with particular interest being shown from countries such as Germany and Austria. Bernmar hopes the Swedish experiment will provide useful information to feed into discussions about labour markets, and yet more evidence come March.

More studies are needed to gauge whether shorter working days could have long-term benefits for society as a whole. Some argue that cutting working hours could allow those in labour-intensive professions to extend their working lives.

Main image: Flickr user Nelson L.

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