the practical science of work

Should You Get Yourself Used To Working Less?

Should You Get Yourself Used To Working Less?

Have you heard about the Swedish experiment of a 6-hour work day in an elderly care home in Gothenburg? It was carried out over a period of 2 years in order to check in what way would a shorter work day influence the carers’ personal life, performance at work, as well as labour market in the bigger picture. Employees of the nursing home had their working hours cut from 8 to 6 daily, while their salary remained the same.

So what did they find out?

Obviously, the employees had significantly more time to devote to their families and other activities not related to work. According to The Guardian, more social engagement was observed among these employees as well. Then followed the increased productivity and more attention put to the care work. A survey conducted among the home residents proved that the staff became happier than before, more energetic and, in general, took better care of the residents. So doesn’t it all just sound like a dream that came true? Maybe a 6-hour work day can be the beginning of a whole new working culture?

Well, this is where one prosaic detail comes into play, ready to destroy the idealistic idea of having found such a simple way to improve things. This detail is – well, you guessed it – money.

Basically, a number of employees suddenly switching from working 8 to 6 hours a day means that someone else has to cover those “missing” hours. That is, more employees are needed in the institution. And this means more salaries to pay. The costs increase and overbalance the benefits. Experiment comes to a conclusion, funding is over. People are back to their 8-hour workday routine. End of story.

So… is it a utopian vision – the world in which we work less but earn the same? Not when you look at it from the perspective of the whole. This is just something that we have not learned yet – to perceive entities, no matter how big in size, as parts of a bigger system. And this bigger system is usually just one of the bricks building an even larger system. Thus, all the benefit is collective. Inclusive, not exclusive. And if we come from a place of caring for the total sum of wellbeing on the planet, things start looking differently.

Photo by Arthur Poulin on Unsplash

If we decide to care for all life as one collective whole, we will not put humans before forests or social carers before plumbers anymore. We will just see all the individual life forms as vital parts of the groups that they constitute, and then these groups – as each playing an essential role in the whole system of life. In this perspective, the nursing home is not just an alienated establishment, detached from all the other institutions. It involves people who are taken care of, as well as their families. It encompasses employees and managers, and partner institutions. Then it shall be seen as one of many entities in the labour market and social care sector, but also as one of numerous expenses in the country’s budget. This country’s budget and finances are obviously linked to other states’ economies. And global economy cannot be separate from nature, wildlife, planet Earth and the rest of the Universe – because it is included in all these bigger systems. The key point here is: nothing exists in separation.

Coming back to the experiment carried out in the nursing home. When we look at it from a place of separation, we can just see pros and cons for the institution, and then we calculate the balance. On one hand, it brings in advantages like increased happiness and productivity of the employees. On the other, it generates costs, which apparently cannot be afforded for more than two years. The conclusion is simple – there are no more funds, so now when the experiment is complete, we go back to the “classic” standard of 8 hours. “It’s far too expensive to carry out a general shortening of working hours within a reasonable time frame.” –  says Daniel Bernmar, Swedish left-wing politician.

But what if we choose to examine all the possible changes triggered by this experiment – also the ones taking place outside the realm of the nursing home? The scenario that you are about to read might be a bit far-fetched, I am aware of that. But instead of approaching it with the intent to judge whether it would be “true” or not – try treating it simply as a possibility. A thought experiment, used to create a picture of what it could feel like to look from the perspective of the whole.

Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

Employees working 6 hours a day get a chance to spend more time at home with their families or engaging with their local communities. The effect of that may be that they establish better relationships with their kids who, in turn, feel more loved, and because of that it is easier for them to deal with school work. Consequently, they receive better education and they become more attentive and tolerant grown-ups. If the employees decide to put their spare time into community activities, this may result in better neighbour relationships, increased feeling of belonging and wellbeing across the whole community.

Now, let’s take the residents of the nursing home. As they are now being better taken care of, they feel happier and healthier and their families – who obviously notice this – are more at ease with the fact that their mum or dad stays in a nursing home. The feeling of peace spreads over these families, as they can see their elder relatives in a good place, well looked after and enjoying their retirement years in the company of relaxed but devoted carers. These family members are also positively influenced in terms of feelings, so they are likely to work better, be more productive and maybe even choose to work shorter but more quality hours themselves.

Working 6 hours a day may also mean that the time at work is actually spent working and not on distractions. According to Forbes, with the present standard of 8+ hours of work a day, up to half of the time is actually used for purposes other than work-related activities. So in regard to salaries, the employer is likely to pay for the same amount of work as before – it is just that the tasks are completed in a shorter period of time, with more motivation and less distraction. And what about the extra salaries that need to be paid to cover the “missing” hours? Well – from the perspective of the whole, it is just paying for new work places, really. Otherwise this money might have been spent on solving problems like unemployment or social exclusion.

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These are just examples of possible consequences of a shorter working day – the ones that I have imagined. Feel free to make up your own scenario and see how far you can go in taking the perspective of a whole. But after all, this is all just speculation. The final question that comes out of this speculation is: who should be the one deciding how many hours you or I work in a day, in a week or in a year? Isn’t it time we start developing new, more flexible business environments, were people can adapt their working hours to their needs as much as possible? And don’t get me wrong – it is not neccessarily about working less, like 6 hours instead of 8. It can as well be 2 or 12 – it is up to you. What I find the most important here is questioning the well-established approach. Instead of thinking in terms of regulated amount of hours one needs to spend at work, why don’t we look at what is it that we actually want to accomplish? Then the amount of time required to do it becomes a secondary thing.



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