Imagine you only had to arrive to work at 10 am and you left at 4 pm. What difference would that make to your life? 

Imagine the commute to and from work — empty roads, space in the train carriage. Picture the leisurely breakfast, and the long evenings with friends and family. And then imagine how much more refreshed you’d be after a solid night’s sleep. The energy you’d have to power through your task list, how much more focused you would be. 

The Cost of an Always-On Workforce

If you’ve ever worried about work-life balance and longed for a shorter day, you’re not alone. 

Research shows that those working more than 55 hours per week have a 33 percent higher chance of having a stroke than those working between 35 and 40 hours. And a survey of employees in Hungary found close to half of employees would prefer a better work-life balance than a higher salary. 

However, in an age when we all check email on our smartphones and exist in a state of being constantly 'on,' it can be very hard to maintain a balance between your 9-5 and the rest of your life. Many skilled professions also exude a strong pressure to work long hours to save face. 

It feels like we’re working ever-longer hours, so the idea that we might work less in the future might seem like a fantasy. To be competitive in a global market, workers surely need to be contactable anytime, anywhere. 

However, this isn’t necessarily universal or inevitable. Over the last 150 years the trend around the world has been towards shorter working hours. The International Labor Organization, a UN body, shows a sustained reduction in working hours over time and an increase in paid leave. 

The Hours of Work (Commerce and Offices) Convention of 1930 stipulated workers could not be forced to work more than 48 hours per week, and this was reduced again to 40 hours a week in 1935. During the first wave of industrial capitalism, it wasn’t unusual for workers to be pushed to work up to 12 hours per day. But over time we’ve seen a gradual and sustained decline in the working day. So, why not expect this trend to continue? 

The 6-Hour Working Day

If the idea of a six hour working day seems fantastical, look to Sweden. The Swedes are famously obsessed with work-life balance, and have experimented with six-hour days since the late 1980s. 

For various political reasons, many of these experiments have been terminated before conclusive results could be had, yet a study with nurses at a retirement home in the city of Svartedalens which began in Feb. 2015 is showing signs of success. Importantly, this time around the experiment has a comparable "control" group — a nearby retirement home where nurses continue to work the full eight-hour day. 

It will be some time before the results of the experiment will be ready for evaluation, so it’s not possible to draw conclusive results yet. Nonetheless, interviews with the nurses themselves seem to suggest significant benefits. 

“I used to be exhausted all the time, I would come home from work and pass out on the sofa,” reported Lise-Lotte Pettersson, 41, an assistant nurse at Svartedalens quoted in The Guardian. “But not now. I am much more alert: I have much more energy for my work, and also for family life”.

And this six-hour model has emerged in other businesses around Sweden too. A Toyota servicing centre in Gothenburg opted for the six-hour day in 2002 and hasn’t looked back. Shorter hours resulted in less mistakes, more motivated employees, lower staff turnover and a reported 25 percent increase in profits. 

And this experience also applies in the fast-growing tech sector. Take Brath, an SEO start up based in the town of Örnsköldsvik. Explaining why they opted for a six-hour day in a recent blog post, the team argued the set-up works well for them: 

“I’m aware it’s not a massive company in any way, but we have 20 employees and we have a healthy profit and growth. So far, close to doubling revenue each year. We’re the fastest growing company in SEO in Sweden as far as I know. We’re not suffering in any way [from the six-hour day].”

Benefits of the approach included: 

  • Making Brath more attractive to potential talent and reducing turnover
  • Workers actually produce more; being creative can only be sustained for relatively short periods of time, and dragging this out for longer than necessary (as in the eight-hour day) is potentially counterproductive
  • Employees feel more rested and stress is generally reduced

The Swedish approach does sound highly appealing. Nonetheless, it has its critics and its drawbacks. For instance, the Svartedalens care home has had to hire 12 new nurses to cover the disruption to older working patterns, and this has cost the local council more money. It’s also questionable how likely it is that other industries would be able to reproduce the successes of companies such as Brath. 

A six-hour work day might be possible in a small and idealistic start up, but could we see large multinationals adopt this model?

Could It Really Happen?

There’s a scene in Richard Linklater’s hopelessly romantic 1995 movie "Before Sunrise" where one of the protagonists bemoans the supposed benefits of improved IT:

“You know what drives me crazy? It's all these people talking about how great technology is, and how it saves all this time. But, what good is saved time, if nobody uses it? If it just turns into more busy work. You never hear somebody say, 'With the time I've saved by using my word processor, I'm gonna go to a Zen monastery and hang out.' I mean, you never hear that”.

While painfully naïve, there’s something in the character’s point of view. In an age where we can get even more done via the Internet and email, where automation has meant that many of our more onerous work tasks have been replaced by machines, we might ask whether it actually makes sense to fill this time with more work. 

For the six-hour day to become a reality will take time, political will and a leap of faith for managers. Nonetheless, if the evidence coming out of places like Sweden does prove that the six-hour day is better for us after all, the future of work might be rather appealing. 

Title image by Sander Smeekes