You may have seen reports in the press recently about how Sweden plans to adopt a 6 hour working day. It turns out that it is not a nationwide legislation, but merely a few select businesses trialling the idea and one ongoing trial in nursing. It isn’t a new concept either, as a Toyota service centre in Gothenburg has been successfully running 6 hour days for 13 years resulting in a 25% increase in profit and numerous employee health and wellbeing benefits. Sweden does already have one of the shortest working weeks globally where only around 1% of employees work more than 50 hours a week, but as you can see from the table below, the UK is not very far behind.
Perhaps the Swedish report was a bit of a non-story, even though the results of the small studies were very encouraging, but it has revived the debate over working hours in the UK and Europe generally which has to be a good thing. We now know, according to A study published in The Lancet in the summer, that those who work longer hours significantly increase their chances of having a stroke. This is perhaps why the story of a shorter working week received so much attention.
The comprehensive study analysed data from 25 separate studies that monitored health of over 600,000 people from the US, Europe, and Australia for up to 8.5 years and found that people who worked 55 hours a week had a 33% greater risk of having a stroke than people who worked a 35-40 hour week, and a 13% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease. A separate study found that working 49-hour weeks was associated with poorer mental health, particularly in women.
The concept of having a balance between work and leisure has been around since mid 1800 and the expression "work–life balance” was first used in the UK in the late 1970s. So, before the research confirmed it, workers were already aware that reducing their working hours could benefit their health and general stress levels.
In Europe, the Working Time Directive set up in 2003 has implemented a maximum 48-hour working week with many countries opting for fewer hours, including France with a 35-hour working week. It is generally suspected that employees who consider their work roles to be an important component of their identities, will be more likely to work longer hours and utilise the latest technology to do so. No legislation will limit excessive hours if workers feel it increases their sense of importance but for the rest of us, it is clear a reduction in the number of hours that we are required to work can only be a good thing for our health, happiness and general well-being. But what about the employer?
Examining the pros and cons of a shorter working week makes it clearer:
Introducing a shorter working week is inevitably going to be more advantageous to some industries and workers, but not all of them. A great deal has to be taken into account from cost, return, competitive edge as well as more complex longer term benefits. Perhaps a more flexible approach is called for such as flexi-time or home working alongside a general reduction in the working week. The arguments are compelling and the evidence mounting that reducing the length of the working week would be a good thing for employer and employee alike. All that’s left to implement change is the political will and one or two influential organisations to take the first step.
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