Sweden Introduces Shorter Working Hours

Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living.

Spending 80% of your time in the office with added pressure to do overtime every night of the week, no time to go to the bank, the dentist, the doctor, no flexibility in your working hours, no time to see your kids. What a way indeed.

Although 9 to 5 office hours are the norm in many western societies, they may actually be hampering levels of productivity, staff morale and quality of work.

A meta-analysis (that is, a study of research studies) by Johnson and Lipscomb (2014) has found that professionals working longer hours are at a greater risk of developing stress, fatigue, cardiovascular conditions, musculoskeletal conditions and are more likely to take up unhealthy behaviours such as smoking.

A further review by Golden (2011) identified a number of studied indicating the negative side-effects of longer working hours. For instance, Holman, Joueux and Kask (2008) found that, despite longer working hours leading to a greater  work output overall, hourly output is significantly diminished compared to shorter working hours.

Futhermore, Hanna et al (2005) found that there was a direct correlation between longer working hours and project duration increases in labour-intensive trades. Due to the fact that 30% of Americans feel they are overworked (Galinskey et al, 2005a), longer working hours may be negatively affecting the entire country.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, Pencavel (2014) discovered that there is a threshold above which output increases become slower and slower. In other words, working up to the threshold leads to good productivity, but working longer hours means that for every extra hour you work, you are putting out less and less work. All that overtime you’re doing may actually be completely pointless.

working hours
Pencavel (2014) – longer working hours leads to a significant decrease in productivity


With all this research showing that long working hours can be harmful to both health and productivity, why is 9-5 so popular? Sadly, because that’s the way it’s always been done.

As we all know, just because something has always been done one way doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. Sweden seems to have figured out that this can indeed apply to office hours and as a result, one of the worst excuses in the English language is finally being challenged.

A number of businesses in Sweden have started to trial shorter working hours, requiring their employees to attend the office for just seven hours a day (and one of those hours is a lunch break).

The initiative is an attempt to produce a happier, more relaxed yet more productive workforce. The idea is that for 6 hours a day (and just three hours at a time) employees will put 100%into their work and completely avoid social media and personal calls/emails. This may sound unreasonable to you (after all, your personal lives are as important as your work lives), but as the work day is broken up into three hour sections, it is not as strict a concept as it may first appear.

Employers who have adopted these methods are hoping that a more concentrated work effort will provide their staff with a successful working day and a much better work/life balance. Mr Nilsson of Background AB, started trialing the initiative in September.

“We’re going to try it for nine months and see if it’s economical first of all, and secondly if it works for our customers and our staff.”

The idea is not actually particularly novel in Sweden; in the 90s and 00s there were many different trials of shorter working hours, one of which ran for 16 years. Unfortunately a lack of effective and conclusive research led to many of the trials being scrapped.

Unfortunately rigorous trials are still pretty hard to come by. What we do know is that nurses who have less than 11 hours between shifts are at greater risk of insomnia, excessive sleepiness and circadian rhythm disorders (Eldevik et al, 2013), working more hours than you personally feel you can cope with can significantly damage your self-perceived health (Bell, Otterbach and Sousa-Pazo, 2011) and that those who work longer hours such as physicians experience significantly higher levels of burnout than the general population (Tait et al, 2012).

These research studies, although useful, do not really give us a comprehensive understanding of how shorter working hours may affect our lives.

Thankfully, we scientists aren’t completely against talking to our participants. Here’s what some people involved in shorter working hours trials have to say:

“For me it’s absolutely fantastic. I have more spare time to train or to be outdoors while it is still daylight, or to do work in my garden.” – Erika Hellstrom

“It’s a very different experience to when I worked in the UK and clients wanted to stay in touch on weekends and during the evening. Here there is a mutual respect. I’ll wait until office hours to call or email my customers and at the same time I know I won’t be phoned when I’m on holiday.” – Ameek Grewal

“I already see a lot of clients who finish work at 4pm to 5pm but they end up trying to take their kids to all these activities, to exercise, to make homemade food…They have the summer house, they have the boat, so in theory they’ve got all this stuff to help them relax but it just makes more work for them. It’s a very Swedish problem… In theory we have this work-life balance but, actually, we’re not very good at sitting around and doing nothing.” – Pia Webb

Clearly the scheme is not for everyone, but with more research we may discover that allowing employees to choose their working hours with more flexibility may be the best approach for everyone.

As already mentioned, very few studies have been conducted on the initiative. The evidence we do have, however, suggests that, so far, it seems to be working.


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