Well being: Clear evidence from Sweden of the benefits of a short workday

Working shorter hours resulted in healthier workers, researcher Bengt Lorentzon found in a new paper. 'They were less tired, less sick, had more energy coming home and more time to do activities.'

Nurses who took part in an six-hour workday experiment took fewer sick days than when working eight-hour days. Getty Images
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In February, after almost two years worth of six-hour workdays, nurses at the Svartedalens elderly care facility in Gothenburg, Sweden went back to eight-hour shifts despite recently published research showing the benefits of the shortened workday.

The City of Gothenburg did not extend the experiment in part because funding ran out. It cost about 12 million krona (Dh5.02m) to hire the 17 extra staff members needed to fill the gaps created by shorter work hours. The city had only budgeted for two years, and legislators said it would be too expensive to implement the project across the entire municipality.

For now the project has come to an end. Yet there are longer-term savings it did not take into account. Working shorter hours resulted in healthier workers, researcher Bengt Lorentzon found in a new paper. “They were less tired, less sick, had more energy coming home and more time to do activities,” he says.

Specifically, the nurses took fewer sick days than they did when working longer eight-hour days. They also took fewer sick days than nurses in the control group. In fact they took fewer sick days than nurses across the entire city of Gothenburg.

Overall, they took 4.7 per cent fewer sick days over the period of the experiment, while nurses in the control group took 62.5 per cent more sick days over the same time frame.

While the study found health and productivity benefits, it didn’t measure the potential long-term cost savings of healthier nurses. But one thing is clear, Mr Lorentzon says: these improved attitudes and health led to higher quality care at the nursing home.

In general, the working population of nurses in Sweden are in worse health than the average Swede. The women in the facility have higher body mass indexes than the average worker, for example. While the study didn’t run long enough to fully measure health effects of shorter days, the research indicates nurses working only six hours will experience permanent health benefits.

q&a still a little way to go yet

Rebecca Greenfield offers more insight into the Swedish study:

What are the benefits of a healthy workforce?

Healthier employees spend half as much on health care, a Mayo Clinic study found. Looking at 10,000 employees in a Florida health system, researchers found that those who were in “ideal” cardiovascular health, using the American Hearth Association’s Life’s Simple 7 measurement, spent US$4,000 a year less on healthcare costs than those in “poor” heart health. Eduardo Sanchez, one of the authors of the American study and chief medical officer for prevention at the American Heart Association says of the Svartedalens experiment: “The question is what were they measuring in terms of cost and what was included and what wasn’t included?” The Swedish experiment didn’t calculate the health savings cost of healthier nurses or consider the long-term savings.

How did the nurses feel about the study?

Those working six hour days reported having more energy and less stress during the trial. Mr Sanchez points to research which found that people who feel good about their employer deliver better results at work.

So have other Swedish organisations considered shortening hours?

Some Swedish municipalities have started their own experiments on workforces with high burnout and poor health. But the Left Party, which is behind the move away from 40-hour weeks, only received 6 per cent of the vote in Sweden’s last general election.

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