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The argument for the six-hour workday Add to ...

The length of our work day – and the case that those long hours are making for an unhealthy, unhappy, inefficient work force – has been getting fresh notice at various companies and in public policy.

The Swedish city of Gothenburg recently announced that it is embarking on an experiment to study whether a six-hour workday can be as productive as an eight hour one. As deputy mayor Mats Pilhem explained in an interview with The Globe and Mail, the test run will explore whether working shorter shifts reduces stress and absenteeism while improving productivity.

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It’s a pretty small-scale experiment, subject to only one department. Municipal elder care workers, who have higher rates of early retirement and stress leave, will be split into two groups, each receiving the same pay, but one working only a six-hour shift. Deciding who gets the better deal hasn’t been worked out yet, Pilhem explained, adding that the city hopes to get the study under way before summer.

Where did the notion of an eight-hour workday come from, anyway? In the late 18th-century, people worked much longer days, doing physical work in lousy conditions, so when they had back pain it wasn’t from sitting too long in an ergonomic chair in an air-conditioned office. The case for the eight-hour day is often credited to British Factory owner Robert Owner, who coined the slogan “eight hours labour, eight hours rest, eight hours recreation.” (For a century in Australia, the anniversary of a successful protest by union workers to institute the eight-hour day was a national holiday.)

A six-hour workday may sound blissfully radical, but it’s been tried before. In 1930, the Kellogg cereal company shortened the hours in the company’s factory and hired more people to make up the time. The company eliminated breaks and bonuses for certain shifts, but gave a small hourly pay raise, so wages fell only by 15 per cent. Over seven years, the company reported that employees were more efficient and work-related accidents were reduced. In a 1935 newspaper, founder W.K. Kellogg boasted that cost of production had fallen so much the company could pay “as much for six hours as they formerly paid for eight.”

Workers noted the leisure time they gained. But the workday was extended again in 1937, when management of the factory changed and as male employees, in particular, sought eight hours to increase pay.

More recently, between 1996 and 1998, municipalities across Finland also tested out the six-hour workday, with a job-sharing system subsidized by the state that meant government departments actually got 12-hour shifts while employees cut their hours, for slightly less pay. Over all, workers reported more life satisfaction, but female employees, particularly, worried that working shorter hours was moving them toward part-time employment and devaluing their professional contributions. When the state subsidizes stopped, most municipalities reverted back to the eight-hour days.

There are already critics of the Gothenburg experiment – that it will be too expensive and complicated. Mayor Pilhem acknowledges that it will be more costly for the city, which will also not benefit from any possible reduction in the state’s health costs. Still, if it proves successful, he says, “hopefully,” it could be extended to other municipal staff.

(Incidentally, reports last week that France had banned e-mails after 6 p.m., while perhaps instantly making us envious of French workers, were not accurate. A labour agreement – not legislation – was signed that affects about 250,000 contract high-tech workers, obligating them to “disconnect communications tools” after working a maximum of 13 hours. So not such a great deal. There is also no hour specified to allow for different time zones.)

Certainly, though, if we really wanted to shorten our workday, eliminating useless e-mails would be a good place to start.

Some studies suggest that just cutting out unnecessary distractions – including the time employees spend on Facebook – would practically create a six-hour day on its own.

Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

 

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