Europe is already known for more progressive approaches to work hours and time off than the United States. Look at any roundup of vacation weeks in Europe vis-a-vis the United States and we come in last place. In fact, the United States is the “only developed country without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday.” By law, every country in the European Union has at least of four weeks of paid vacation.
But it’s not just vacation standards that are different; work hours vary as well. The French are often cited for their 35-hour working week, but now Sweden is making news with a new experiment starting this summer. Beginning July 1st, the city of Gothenburg is splitting some government workers into two groups: those who work eight-hour days and those that work six-hour days. All employees will receive the same pay, and after a year the government will analyze data to see whether or not a shorter work week is in fact a good thing.
“We’ll compare the two afterwards and see how they differ,” Mat Pilhem, the Left Party deputy mayor of Gothenburg, told The Local. “We hope to get the staff members taking fewer sick days and feeling better mentally and physically after they’ve worked shorter days.”
But it’s not just about sick days. A look at data from the OECD countries shows that there is in fact a positive correlation between working fewer hours and productivity levels. Working less could be good for us.
Gothenburg leaders behind the experiment cite the local Toyota plant as an example of how a shorter work week can be good for both workers and business. The Toyota branch went to a six-hour day in 2002, allowing it to have two shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, as opposed to one day-long shift. That has in turn made workers more productive because it requires fewer breaks.
“Every time you have a break, it takes 10 to 15 minutes to get back to work, because you have to see where you were when you left off,” Toyota worker Robert Nilsson told Agence France-Presse.
Opponents aren’t so sure.
“It’s the kind of populist and socialist policy that’s very dangerous for the economy, and we shouldn’t go through with it,” warned Maria Ryden, a member of Gothenburg city council for the centre-right Moderates, which oppose the plans, told Agence France-Presse. “We’re capable of working more.”
The discussion of shorter hours isn’t new. In 1930 essay, notable economist John Maynard Keynes postulated that by 2030, people might not need to work more than 15 hours a week. Almost a century later, Keynes’ projections seem laughable given the amount that most of us work, but when we look at the data, there is certainly an argument to be made for working less. While in the United States, Americans have managed to keep fairly long work hours and stay productive, the new experiment in Sweden will provide interesting insight to the ongoing discussion.
Maybe one day working less will be the new normal?
Photo Credit: Phil Whitehouse