In the municipality of Gothenburg in Sweden, plans to experiment in six-hour workdays have been underway since April 2014. Preliminary reports on the results of a trial at a retirement home, suggest staff are happier more energetic and the quality of care has increased.
In a controlled trial, one group of workers have had its workday reduced to six hours with no reduction in pay, with the aim of improving employee health and well-being, reducing sick leave and increasing the quality and efficiency of work performed. Mats Pilhem, the Left Party Deputy Mayor who pushed for the scheme, also emphasised the potential for shorter working hours to reduce unemployment.
The experiment is viewed as a success at the centre, with nurses reporting whilst they used to be exhausted they are more alert and have more energy for their work and for their family life. The Head of Elderly Care, Ann-Charlotte Dahlbom Larsson, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper she was concerned that the trend towards longer and more intensive working hours in the sector caused exhaustion, illness and depression amongst staff. Larsson reported that both employee well-being and the quality of care have improved as a result of the shorter working day.
Long working hours have been associated with worse health outcomes. A study in the Lancet medical journal suggested that working for 48 hours per week increased the chances of a stroke by 10% compared to a 35-40 hour week, those working in excess of 55 hours had a 33% increased risk.
The OECD projects that, due to longer life expectancy and the reduction in informal care provision, demand for long-term care will increase in all countries. The financial and fiscal sustainability of this scenario is high on governments’ agenda. The Gothenburg experiment faces criticism from opposition parties over the additional cost of extra staff.
The experiment suggests the quality of the service provided and the well-being of employees are mutually reinforcing. Whist the upfront costs are greater the experiment has resulted in better quality outcomes.
Global labour market trends suggest work is becoming more insecure and unemployment is increasing. Whereas over the course of the 20th century productivity gains in western countries were translated into shorter working hours there has been a reversal in this trend with those in full time employment working longer hours.
Advocates for work-sharing policies claim it has the potential to re-distribute work from those who are working too much and provide more stable employment for the un-and-underemployed.
Ecological economists, not convinced that economic growth can be effectively de-coupled from environmental impacts, advocate shorter working hours as a way to convert productivity into improvements in quality of life rather than increases in consumption.
Of the jobs at risk of automation, human services like social care may be less susceptible. The sector is well known for showing little to no productivity growth over time. Arguably the value of care comes from the building of personal relationships and soft skills in compassion and sociability – attributes which do not lend themselves to acceleration.
Human care isn’t inherently immune from technology however: many parents use monitors and surveillance apps to check on babies and young children. Researchers are developing ‘personal robots’, programmed to interact with humans for the purposes of child and elderly care, but at what cost to human relationships?
Image credit: Mikael Wiman/Flickr
The Local (14th April 2014) Swedes to give six-hour workday a go
The Guardian (17th September 2015) Efficiency up, turnover down: Sweden experiments with six-hour working day