Did the 6 hour working day in Sweden work?

For the last two years lucky Swedes have been experimenting with a six-hour, fully paid working day. Now the first phase of the experiment has ended and we want to know - what, if anything, did they learn?

The trial, which is not yet fully complete, ran at a range of different organisations, one of which was a retirement home in Gothenburg. In February 2015, nurses there had their working hours reduced from eight hour a day to six hours with no drop in pay.

Their levels of wellbeing were then measured against a nearby retirement home where working hours remained the same.

Happier workers with a better work-life balance

It isn't surprising that the nurses themselves enjoyed the extra free time - but this didn't just benefit them personally.

During the first 18 months of the trial the nurses working shorter hours reported less sick leave, claimed to be in better health and even organised 85% more activities for the home's residents like nature walks and sing-alongs, representing a big boost in productivity.

Assistant nurse Emilie Telander, 26, told BBC News: "During the trial all the staff had more energy. I could see that everybody was happy."

Now that the trial has ended Ms Telander reports feeling more tired than she was before and misses having the time to cook at home and read with her four-year-old daughter.

There's no doubt that reduced working hours had a positive impact on the lives of employees, who had more time to dedicate to their friends, families and personal interests - but at what cost?

Unhappy opponents call to scrap the scheme

Of course, the care home residents still needed caring for after the nurses went home, meaning that to accommodate the reduced hours the centre in Gothenburg had to employ 17 new staff members. This cost them an additional €600,000 (£510,000) a year – a 22% increase in gross cost.

This caused centre-right opponents to call for a premature end to the scheme, claiming that it was unfair to keep investing taxpayers' money in a pilot that was proving to be economically unstable.

In the end the trial cost Gothenburg a total of 12 million kronor (£1.1 million) - a sum that was still within the intended budget.

"Could we do this for the entire municipality? The answer is no, it will be too expensive," said Daniel Bernmar, the Left Party councillor responsible for running Gothenburg's elderly care.

However, he believes the trial was largely: "successful from many points of view". For instance it created extra jobs for 17 nurses in the city, reduced sick pay costs and fuelled global debates about work culture.

Are we spending too much time at work?

The number of British people working 48+ hour weeks is growing, according to a TUC report, while one in 25 men work for at least 60 hours a week.

Long working hours have been linked to a higher risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It is also linked to stress and other mental health problems. We know too that sitting for long periods of time - as many modern workers do - comes with its own array of health problems, from musculoskeletal disorders (like back and neck pain), to the increase in the risk of certain cancers.

The trial in Sweden was launched to see if workers could be more productive in a shorter amount of time. The idea is that if you're free to spend more time on the things you love in your personal life, then you're going to be happier when you are at work - and therefore more motivated, engaged and productive.

While this seems to make sense, many business owners are still against the idea.

Is it possible to do all your work in six hours?

"I really don't think that the six-hour day fits with an entrepreneurial world, or the start-up world," argued Erik Gatenholm, chief executive of a Gothenburg-based bio-ink company.

His firm trialled the shorter working day after reading about it on Facebook. However, the experiment was ditched in less than a month due to bad feedback from employees who found their work simply built up and caused more stress.

His concerns were shared by workplace behaviour expert Dr Aram Seddign, who recently completed his doctorate at Stockholm University.

"I think the six-hour work day would be most effective in organisations - such as hospitals - where you work for six hours and then you just leave [the workplace] and go home.

"It might be less effective for organisations where the borders between work and private life are not so clear," he said.

"This kind of solution might even increase stress levels given that employees might try to fit all the work that they have been doing in eight hours into six - or if they're office workers they might take the work home."

The answer might be agile working

Is there a way to improve work-life balance without reducing working hours?

Agile working is a holistic way of working that promotes greater flexibility in all parts of a business. This may mean introducing systems that enable remote working - such as virtual offices and cloud services for storing files. It may mean flexi-time, whereby employees can choose to work when they like with onus on the output of their work as opposed to the time spent doing it. This means they can fit their work around their lives instead of trying to squeeze things like school drops and fitness regimes into the time before 9 am, or after 6 pm.

Essentially agile working is whatever works for the business. There's no one-size-fits-all solution.

Dr Aram Seddigh, lead researcher for this nursing home trial, said:

"A lot of offices are already working almost like consultancies. There's no need for managers to have all their workers in the office at the same time, they just want to get the results and people have to deliver.

"Compare that to the assistant nurses - they can't just leave work to go to the dentist or to the doctors or the hairdressers.

"So I don't think people should start with the question of whether or not to have reduced hours. First, it should be: what can we do to make the working environment better? And maybe different things can be better for different groups.

"It could be to do with working hours and working times, but it could be a lot of other things as well."

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