On July 1, the Swedish city of Gothenburg will attempt to answer a simple question that could have big implications: Is a six-hour work day better than an eight-hour one?
In an experiment, the city will ask one group of government workers to work six hours a day, while another will continue working the eight-hour days they are used to. The results of the experiment will be used to decide whether more of the city should switch to a six-hour work day.
The experiment has created headlines around the world, capturing the imaginations of many people who feel overworked. But can it actually work? The Swedish town of Kiruna has experimented with six-hour working days and actually returned to the standard eight in 2005. It's unclear what would be different this time.
Mats Pilhem, a local politician who supports the scheme, was on hand to answer a few questions about the proposal. He explained how his party (Vänsterpartiet, or the Left Party), had come forward to support the experiment with the Socialdemokraterna (Social Democrats) and Miljöpartiet (Green Party). "We think it is a necessary and important life-changing reform," Pilhem wrote in an e-mail.
More answers from Pilhem follow.
Washington Post: What will you be looking for from the teams that begin six-hour work days? Do you want them to be more efficient? Healthier? Happier?
Mats Pilhem: The goal is a healthier and happier staff; this will give a positive impact on the elderly as well. Another goal is to create new jobs. This is also a feminist question; this reform releases time for all working people which create conditions for a more equal distribution of paid and unpaid work. Further on it will increase the ability of women to economic independence. A shorter workday means that female part-timers will be translated into full-time jobs. As a result this reform will improve our personnel’s working situation as well as their living situation.
WP: Other Swedish towns have experimented with six-hour work days – Kiruna, for example – and gone back to regular hours. Why would this time be different?
MP: Kiruna's project showed good results. But it was too expensive for the municipality, the economic savings from reduced sick leaves etc went to the government – not back to Kiruna. It also lacked a proper evaluation of the results and effects of their experiment.
This time we are more prepared to invest in this reform. We will also run this 12-month project together with researchers to help interpret the results.
WP: In other parts of the world, there are different ideas for reducing the number of work hours. For example, a lot of people in Holland work four-day weeks. Why is a six-hour work day better than a shorter working week or more vacation time?
MP: Any kind of reduction of working hours is good. The framework of our project is 30 hours working week – and for most a six-hour work day. But it is flexible. The night staff will, for example, probably work fewer nights.
For physically demanding jobs, it is more important to work six hours.
We do not think that more vacation time will give the same effects, given that the aim is to improve our personnel’s everyday life as well.
WP: So what will happen if the experiment proves that a six-hour work day is better? It will roll out to other government workers in Gothenburg? Could it go further across Sweden, or into the private workplace?
MP: Of course we (Vänsterpartiet) hope to extend this project. But for six hours to become the working norm, it requires a decision on a national level. We will run this project to show that it is possible to reduce the working hours with good results. Since we announced the project, several Swedish municipals have contacted us to investigate if they can do the same.
Regarding the private sector, Toyota service center has had six-hour work days since 2002 with very good results. They even increased their efficiency.
WP: I live in America, where there’s perhaps a culture of working long hours. People don't like working long hours, but I get the sense that people also feel like it is a reason the U.S. is so economically powerful and they wouldn’t want to give that up. I was wondering what was different in Sweden?
MP: The economy only grew stronger when the work day was reduced to eight hours; I do not think we will jeopardize the economy this time either. The workers will also be given the same amount of pay as if they worked eight hours.
Further on I think that it is possible to have a high working morale and to work to serve the society as a whole, and still value other things in life than work. To maintain a good economy, we also need people who have the strength to work to their retirement age.
Given the major breakthrough in the international media, I think more countries than Sweden are ready for this reform.