If we want to maximise productivity and wellbeing, how many hours should we work?

hoursSome people cling to the idea that if you want to get more work done, the obvious solution is to put in more hours. But if that’s true, why are a number of companies in Sweden reducing their working schedule from eight hours a day to six? Is Sweden that economically successful that they can afford to give their staff a quarter of the day off? No – something different is going on. But to understand it, we need to look at where the idea of the eight hour working day and its association with productivity comes from. During the late 19th century, there was an increased demand for worker’s rights, and the debate about working hours was right at the heart of it. Improvements were slowly made, as standard 16-hour-a-day shifts reduced and reduced. As the 20th century arrived, significant progress had been made, but even then many stubborn companies held on to older working practices. Ten-hour, six-day-a-week schedules were still common.

In 1926 the Henry Ford Motor Company made the decision to reduce working hours to only 40 per week – eight hours over five days. Alongside this, the decision was made to increase pay. On the surface this seems like a very poor financial decision for the company, but Henry Ford knew exactly what he was doing. This was a move designed not to cost Ford money, but to make lots of it.

Ford recognised the capitalist ideology that if the everyday worker has more disposable money they are likely to spend it on luxury items – like cars. Equally, Ford believed that a shorter working week would allow people to extra leisure time would encourage them to spend more of their money too.

Time vs. Productivity

Interestingly, while Ford’s decision to reduce working hours had intended to give workers more leisure time, it actually achieved something relatively unexpected. Rather than making things harder for Ford, the workers actually became more productive – contrary to logic, despite working fewer hours, staff were getting more done. Many companies followed suit and the 40-hour week became the standard.

This shows up the fallacy that if you want to get more done, you just need to work more – something that many companies and employees today do not understand. In fact, the key to producing productive workers is happiness. Unsurprisingly, Ford’s workers were happier with their additional leisure time and increased pay.

But it’s interesting to note that Ford’s plan, while phenomenally successful, was not based on scientific study. It was simply a refinement of what had come before. But once the eight hour working day had been adopted, there was no significant push for any further reduction. That means it has never been truly established whether eight hours per day is the optimal amount of time we should spend working, or if there is something that can be even better for employees and employers. But now Sweden has started doing something fairly unique – many companies have introduced a six hour working day. Let’s have a look at why.

The Swedish Experiment

Your first thought might be that this is a cost-cutting initiative, but it’s not. The workers are paid the same rate for their six-hour working day as they were for their eight-hour days. No, this is an experiment. The Swedish government funded the project to look at whether a shorter working day increases productivity.

Interestingly it has concluded that it does. Workers on a six-hour per day shift have been shown to work harder, be less stressed and take less sick leave. Effectively this means that happier, more productive workers can do just as much on a 30-hour week as their less productive counterparts working a 40-hour week.

Work-life balance

What we are striving for is a sensible work-life balance, where we have enough to time to get work done but also the leisure time to relax, de-stress and enjoy ourselves. For some people, the answer to this is flexible working. Flexible working encourages irregular hours as well as working-from-home.

But it may be the case that this is not actually a positive – in fact, there is some evidence to suggest that flexible working is actually bad for us. It’s thought that flexible working promotes the idea of effectively always being switched on to work. The six-hour-a-day schedule has been shown to increase productivity without any of these negative effects.


mike-jamesMike James is a commentator on workplaces issues for Into the Blue.

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