How great would Sweden’s proposed six-hour workday be? This great.


A tram crosses Kungsportsavenyn, the main street in Gothenburg, Sweden. Volvo Cars is shedding more than 2,700 jobs in Sweden, mainly in Gothenburg. (2008 photo/Casper Hedberg/Bloomberg News)

Gothenburg, Sweden's second largest city, will begin its experiment with six-hour working days this summer, hopefully proving that the shorter work hours can make up for what they lose in time with more efficient work.

If the plan goes well, it could spread across the Swedish civil society, but some lucky Gothenburg residents are already living the dream. Last week, Agence France-Presse spoke to a mechanic in the city who was working a six-hour day. “My friends hate me. Most of them think because I work six hours, I shouldn’t be paid for eight,” Robert Nilsson explained.

There's reason to be envious: A six-hour work day would be a pretty big reduction in yearly working hours. The chart below shows the total number of hours worked yearly by OECD members in 2012. Assuming that the lucky Swedes with six-hour workdays were on the job 222 days a year (260 workdays minus the minimum number of contractual and public holidays in the Swedish calender), they will work 1,332 hours out of 8,760 in a year.


As you can see, according to the OECD data,that's even less hours worked on average than the Dutch, many of whom work four-day weeks, and Germany, whose OECD numbers skew downward due to the large number of part-time workers in that country.

The experiment in Gothenburg aims to determine whether one of the biggest arguments in favor of shorter working days is actually true. In the trial, due to start July 1, one group of government workers will work six hours a day, while another will continue working the eight-hour days they are used to. If the workers with shorter hours are found to be better off mentally and physically, and are working more efficiently, the six-hour workday may be extended to other parts of the civil service.

Perhaps the key concept there is that of efficiency. Studies have shown that there appears to be an inverse relationship between the number of hours worked by OECD countries and how efficient they are (though the United States is an outlier here, working both long and hard).

Unfortunately, of course, life is not quite that simple. The Swedish town of Kiruna actually gave up its six-hour working days in 2005 after finding that the increased intensity of work was not a positive. "People have seen there that the intensity of the job increases significantly, with negative effects on health as a consequence," Carina Bildt at the National Institute for Working Life told the Swedish press at the time. "It has certainly helped to improve productivity, but sickness has also increased."

Let's hope this time it works out differently.

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Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.

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