Sweden and the 6 hour working day

Posted on Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 by

You may have seen reports in the press recently about how Sweden plans to adopt a 6 hour working day. It turns out that it is not a nationwide legislation, but merely a few select businesses trialling the idea and one ongoing trial in nursing. It isn’t a new concept either, as a Toyota service centre in Gothenburg has been successfully running 6 hour days for 13 years resulting in a 25% increase in profit and numerous employee health and wellbeing benefits. Sweden does already have one of the shortest working weeks globally where only around 1% of employees work more than 50 hours a week, but as you can see from the table below, the UK is not very far behind.


Perhaps the Swedish report was a bit of a non-story, even though the results of the small studies were very encouraging, but it has revived the debate over working hours in the UK and Europe generally which has to be a good thing. We now know, according to A study published in The Lancet in the summer, that those who work longer hours significantly increase their chances of having a stroke. This is perhaps why the story of a shorter working week received so much attention.

The comprehensive study analysed data from 25 separate studies that monitored health of over 600,000 people from the US, Europe, and Australia for up to 8.5 years and found that people who worked 55 hours a week had a 33% greater risk of having a stroke than people who worked a 35-40 hour week, and a 13% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease. A separate study found that working 49-hour weeks was associated with poorer mental health, particularly in women.

A work-life balance

The concept of having a balance between work and leisure has been around since mid 1800 and the expression “work–life balance” was first used in the UK in the late 1970s. So, before the research confirmed it, workers were already aware that reducing their working hours could benefit their health and general stress levels.

In Europe, the Working Time Directive set up in 2003 has implemented a maximum 48-hour working week with many countries opting for fewer hours, including France with a 35-hour working week. It is generally suspected that employees who consider their work roles to be an important component of their identities, will be more likely to work longer hours and utilise the latest technology to do so. No legislation will limit excessive hours if workers feel it increases their sense of importance but for the rest of us, it is clear a reduction in the number of hours that we are required to work can only be a good thing for our health, happiness and general well-being. But what about the employer?

Weighing the arguments

Examining the pros and cons of a shorter working week makes it clearer:


  1. The longer hours someone works, the less productive they become, so cutting down the hours from the outset will encourage people to be more productive and they will have more energy to do so.
  2. A shorter working day is very attractive to employees and results in lower staff turnover and makes it easier to recruit top people.
  3. A healthier workforce means fewer sick days, and a happier work environment
  4. Juggling commitments outside of work, for example childcare or carer duties could be easier if hours at the office were shorter.

And against?

  1. It is expensive to implement for the employer in the initial stages with any benefits only appearing later and not always with a clear measurable financial advantage.
  2. For many jobs, 6 working hours is not enough, for example in a client facing role where it is the individual in demand rather than the role itself, a surgeon or barrister for example or school teacher.
  3. There are always distractions in the world of work so, for example on a normal 8 hour day, you perhaps lose 2 hours to distractions, would that mean a 6 hour day would end up as only 4 productive hours?
  4. In competitive industries where you simply have to provide the same level of service as your competitors, you can’t clock off at 3pm if your competitors are still at their desks until 7pm.

Introducing a shorter working week is inevitably going to be more advantageous to some industries and workers, but not all of them. A great deal has to be taken into account from cost, return, competitive edge as well as more complex longer term benefits. Perhaps a more flexible approach is called for such as flexi-time or home working alongside a general reduction in the working week. The arguments are compelling and the evidence mounting that reducing the length of the working week would be a good thing for employer and employee alike. All that’s left to implement change is the political will and one or two influential organisations to take the first step.