Is a Shorter Workday Actually Better for Businesses?
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How many times have you wished for a shorter workday? Late Sunday night, you might think to yourself how much easier Monday would seem if it were a few hours shorter. The same thought might occur on Monday at 2:30 p.m., when you're feeling exhausted and ready to call it a day.
Shorter working hours sound like a fairy tale, but you might be surprised to learn that there are business leaders around the world taking the idea of a shorter workday quite seriously.
The basic idea here is simple, though it may vary in application: The traditional workday is eight hours across five days, for a total of 40 hours. But consider this: Some businesses are considering a reduction to six-hour workdays, scaling down to a 30-hour workweek (or somewhere in between).
Working for eight hours is physically and mentally draining, so by the end of your shift, you likely find your effectiveness significantly reduced. Importantly, eight-hour workdays were originally conceived back in 1914, when working conditions and technological capabilities were very different from today’s.
Entrepreneurs and politicians want to know if shorter working hours can result in higher productivity, or create other benefits that outweigh the additional costs.
The effects of a shorter workday have been studied empirically. For 23 months, stretching from February 2015 to December 2016, a select group of workers in Gothenburg, Sweden, were switched to a six-hour workday to evaluate its potential benefits. Their pay was not reduced. The results? Some of the measured results were positive, including a 4.7 percent reduction in total sick days taken, and a noticeable reduction in absenteeism.
Among the group studied, more than 50 percent of nurses reported having energy after work in a six-hour workday, compared to 20 percent for eight-hour workers; and six-hour workers said they were less stressed and more physically active and experienced less neck and back pain.
Of course, this study was fairly limited, taking place over two years in one specific area of the world, and failing to calculate factors like health-cost savings in an accurate way.
Still, we can project four main benefits to a shorter workday setup:
- Morale. You’ll be hard-pressed to find workers who don't like the idea of a shorter workday. Working fewer hours means having more energy, more personal time and a lot less stress. Happy workers are also productive workers, so the boost in morale will likely result in generating more creative ideas, staying more loyal to your company and ultimately getting more done in the span of a day (though the exact productivity benefits haven’t been empirically demonstrated as outweighing the costs).
- Health savings. Workers on shorter hours experience less chronic pain and less stress. These physical manifestations of higher morale and less strain end up having a net positive effect on employee health afflictions. They spend less time taking sick days and are less likely to develop chronic illnesses. In theory, this could result in hundreds to thousands of dollars saved per worker though, again, these numbers haven’t yet been crunched.
- Personal time. Personal time seems like it’s just another avenue to develop higher morale, but the extra personal time resulting carries multiple benefits for the individual and society as a whole. People with more personal time can spend more time with their families, have more time to exercise and prepare healthy meals rather than buy unhealthy fast food; they can also find time to work on personal projects. Ultimately, that means a healthier, happier, more connected working population -- and one capable of more innovation and creativity.
- Task management. Managing work is psychologically demanding, but with shorter working hours, people have fewer choices to make throughout the day, thereby decreasing decision fatigue. Employees can also rigorously schedule and follow through on their work, rather than letting simple tasks eat up the extended hours of the day.
The biggest problem facing the concept of a shorter workday, of course, is the cost. In the Gothenburg study, nurses who worked six-hour days instead of eight-hour days were paid the same as their eight-hour counterparts. That equates to an instant 25 percent raise (in terms of per-hour wages).
Political officials acknowledge the benefits of a shorter workday, but are concerned about what those increased costs might mean for businesses—and for the government.
What does a shorter workday mean for us?
One study in Sweden isn’t enough to justify the benefits of a six-hour workday worldwide, but companies still have control over their own operations. The Swedish companies Brath and Filimundus, for example, have been instituting six-hour workdays since 2012 and 2014, respectively, and their CEOs insist that six-hour workdays are better for any company category.
Related: An Obituary for the 40-Hour WorkweekIf you want to differentiate your startup, or attract more unique-minded workers, or just boost employee morale at your organization, you might find it worthwhile to consider a reduction in mandatory hours. Think of it as your own miniature experiment; at the very least, you’ll get some free publicity as the concept of the six-hour workday starts to be taken more seriously.